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Texas Standard

'The First Shots': a tale of messy, warp-speed collaboration that gave us the COVID-19 vaccines

a book cover of First Shots with the title in red and a large graphic of a white and red syringe next to it
Courtesy of publisher
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In Brendan Borrell's book, UT-Austin scientist Jason McLellan is one of the heroes who helps bring the vaccines to market in record time.

From Texas Standard:

For some Texans, the importance of COVID-19 vaccinations might not be top of mind anymore, especially when challenges like work and child care have taken over in a pandemic entering its third year. But the push to vaccinate isn't over, especially with vaccination rates still low in many parts of the state and a national death toll over 900,000.

The story of how those vaccines became available in the first place is a wild one. It was a scientific feat that required intense and messy collaboration to achieve the seemingly unachievable, in record time.

Brendan Borell documented it all in his book, "The First Shots: The Epic Rivalries and Heroic Science Behind the Race to the Coronavirus Vaccine." Borrell spoke with Texas Standard about what he had hoped to achieve by documenting the COVID-19 vaccines' development in such detail, the major players who made it happen in 11 months and how three pharmaceutical companies beat out all the other candidates to provide vaccines to the American public.

Listen to the interview with Borrell in the audio player above or read the interview below.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Texas Standard: A very fast and wild tale of how the COVID-19 vaccines were developed is exactly why some people say they won't get the shot. Did you think that by accurately documenting the development of the vaccines it would encourage more people to get vaccinated?

Brendan Borrell: That is the great irony, right? I mean, this incredible scientific achievement in record time, and you think everybody would be happy and dancing around. But success, of course, breeds these questions: Well, did they move too fast? Was politics involved? Do we really know that this mRNA works?

And on the one hand, I can understand why people who aren't versed in science might have these concerns. And that was definitely at the forefront in my mind as I was trying to document this achievement and explain the care and thought that went into these vaccines.

You turned this book around quite quickly; your book was actually published in October 2021. Tell us more about the writing process and your timeline.

It was about 11 months from the release of the sequence of the coronavirus in China to the approval of the vaccines in 2020. I started working on this book around April of that year, and I knew nothing, almost nothing, about immunology and vaccinology, and was just kind of playing catch-up to try to know what was happening in the scientific world.

You mentioned mRNA vaccines –  a technology that had been researched for a while but never really put to use like this before. It almost seems like it took something like the race for the COVID vaccine in order for this technology to finally come to fruition.

You know, the whole world was suddenly dependent on a coronavirus vaccine. But just to back up a bit, most of the time vaccines have been thought of in the pharmaceutical world as losers. So, the pharmaceutical world actually has generally ignored emerging infectious diseases. But with the coronavirus, suddenly there's this huge interest in getting a fast technology out there.

We had President Trump's Operation Warp Speed, which just infused hundreds of millions of dollars into the vaccine-development program, and that really helped bring these things across the finish line.

Could you tell us a little bit more about one of the main characters in your book, someone you called "Dr. Bob"? Who was he and why was he so important in the development of these vaccines?

Bob Kadlec: he was the assistant secretary for preparedness and response, which I know is a mouthful. And it was kind of like the special ops wing of the nation's health department. And he was kind of, I describe him in the book: he was this former spy military man, Air Force doctor just doing all this cool stuff, and then he's kind of in the weeds as our our guy who's helping the nation prepare for hurricanes, bioweapons attacks.

But the coronavirus comes along and suddenly Kadlec is in the hot seat, and he sort of gets somewhat vilified in the media, he's really disliked by his bosses in the Trump administration. But it really comes down to him to design the program that became Operation Warp Speed.

You mentioned the Trump administration, and it might be worth reflecting on the fact that back when Operation Warp Speed was making headlines daily, there were a lot of people on the left who were skeptical of this effort. Now, of course, things have flipped around quite a bit and people who might define themselves as Trump supporters have become leaders in the anti-vaccine movement. What what accounts for that flip-flop?

The concern about the speed at which vaccines were being developed under the Trump administration was warranted. We never developed a vaccine this fast before. The fastest vaccine to the market was four years for the mumps vaccine. And this promise that we were going to get a vaccine by the [November 2020] election was kind of scary.

We knew the [Trump] administration had a reputation for sort of pressuring our public officials. And so that's why many independent scientists were raising the alarm. But actually, everything was done to the T, by the book, to get this thing out there, considering the emergency that we were facing.

You were raised in Houston; you must have been thinking about the Texas connection in all this.

It was definitely heartening when I heard that Jason McLellan, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who I describe as wearing Star Wars shirts to give lectures – he's kind of this laid-back guy – but he was this pivotal figure in the early science of the vaccine.

Once that sequence, the genetic sequence, of the virus came out in early January [2020], McLellan's team was working with the National Institutes of Health racing to create their prototype vaccine to figure out what shape it was. That's kind of critical, right? This vaccine has a spike, and they wanted to make sure that spike was going to work to generate the right type of antibodies that we would need to fight the coronavirus.

Your book focuses mainly on the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. And I'm curious why you think they were so successful? Does it come down to the mRNA technology? How did they end up beating out all the other potential vaccines from other companies?

It was a combination of factors. Number one was speed. The mRNA – that was the promise of mRNA from the beginning was it's much easier to manufacture mRNA; it's like plug and play – you just switch the sequence, you have a new vaccine, you know what's going to come out the other end. mRNA manufacturing, once it gets up to scale, it's pretty straightforward.

The other vaccines we've heard of from Johnson & Johnson, which is this virus vector, you've got to grow viruses in a vat; the Novavax vaccine, which uses proteins – that one's kind of like, you're basically culturing these goopy proteins and you have to purify them, and Novavax has had all kinds of challenges with that.

So from the beginning, it was like, if RNA worked, it would be amazing, but we don't know if mRNA is going to work, and it's never been done before. And lo and behold, it was like a field goal. It just, we found the dose that was not too high and not too low; right in the middle. So the fact that they were successful and they were the first ones is kind of how they've been able to dominate the market. It really was a vaccine race.

Listen to an extended interview at Texas Standard.

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