Praise for The First Shots
Borrell’s gripping, behind-the-scenes look at the race for a COVID vaccine reads like a thriller. But it’s also a stunning look at politics, greeds, ego – and scientific brilliance, from the arduous task of production, then testing, to decisions about who gets immunized first.
On December 26, 2019, a man walked into the Wuhan Central Hospital with a cough and a fever. Soon, he was gasping for air, and had to be placed on a ventilator. A sample taken from his lungs contained a coronavirus whose gene sequence was shared around the world.
A Specimen Arrives
Stabilizing the Spike
The coronavirus is a wily foe, covered in spikes that change shape before the body can develop the defenses needed to prevent them from hijacking our cells. Long before the pandemic broke out, an unassuming vaccinologist from Kansas named Barney Graham had spent years working on ways create dummy spikes that the body could learn to attack: a vaccine, in other words. Two days after the genome of the novel coronavirus went online on January 10, 2020, Graham's team had their plan of attack.
Without faith, you can't have hope, and without hope, it's difficult to love." – Barney Graham
"Moderna is going to work. We will have a vaccine." – Anthony Fauci
Race to the Vaccine
Almost every major vaccine maker chose to follow Barney Graham's lead, aiming to manufacture a spike-based vaccine using his revolutionary design. Graham and a sassy research fellow in his lab, Kizzmekia Corbett, worked closely with an unproven drugmaker called Moderna Therapeutics as their mRNA-based vaccine entered the first-in-human trials in Seattle on March 16, 2020.
During the pandemic, a military doctor and former spy named Robert Kadlec ("Dr. Bob") ran an obscure, understaffed health agency called the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Preparedness Response. Reviled inside the Trump White House and battered by the media, Kadlec couldn't catch a break. Working with a geeky vaccine regulator at the Food and Drug Administration, he created the blueprints for what would become Operation Warp Speed during a historic meeting in his office on April 10, 2020.
"This is war, baby" – Robert Kadlec
"It’s called Operation Warp Speed. That means big and it means fast. A massive scientific, industrial, and logistical endeavor unlike anything our country has seen since the Manhattan Project." – President Donald Trump, May 14, 2020
About the Author
Based in Los Angeles, Brendan Borrell is an award-winning journalist who has written for The Atlantic, Bloomberg Businessweek, National Geographic, the New York Times, Smithsonian, and Outside. The First Shots is his first book.