How the Covid-19 vaccines came to be.
Governments often dithered, but scientists and entrepreneurs were on the ball. Outsidemagazine correspondent Borrell delivers a vivid portrait of the combination of drudgery, greed, legerdemain, and brilliance that made the vaccines a reality in record time. The arrival of the pandemic in the U.S. in January 2020 galvanized America’s public health establishment and a dozen pharmaceutical companies ranging from aggressive startups such as Moderna to international behemoths like Pfizer. All were aware that developing a vaccine is horrendously expensive and risky but that governments were eager to make every effort to ensure success. Still, the path remained bumpy. The old method of growing viruses in large stainless-steel vats was facing a new technology in which a vaccine consisted of bits of viral RNA that activate the body’s immune response equally well. New or old, it had to work, and Borrell offers a meticulous, thrilling account of the testing process. First, researchers tested lab animals to determine if the vaccine protected them from the virus. It did. Then human volunteers received it to find a proper dose and check for side effects. Only then were thousands given either vaccine or placebo and then watched for months. Some vaccines flopped, but the best provided more than 90% protection. Led by Lawrence Wright’s The Plague Year, most Covid books emphasize chaotic, self-serving politics and the pandemic’s devastation, a dismal one-two punch. Borrell does not ignore ignorant or apathetic leaders, but by concentrating on the vaccines, he tells a story with a happy ending—at least as of May 2021, when his account ends. Drawing on extensive interviews, the author uncovers heroes and villains, works hard, if not always successfully, to explain virology and vaccine technology for a lay readership, and excels in recounting the cutthroat pharmaceutical world in which the process of developing a vaccine can bring riches or bankruptcy.
An exciting, readable exploration of an extraordinary scientific breakthrough.