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Podcast: Gregory Zuckerman — A Shot to Save the World: Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine

Gregory Zuckerman

By now we know what went wrong in the response to the most devastating pandemic in a century. Mistakes were legion and many of the world’s biggest drug and vaccine makers were slow to react or couldn’t muster effective responses.

A Shot to Save the World: The Inside Story of the Life-or-Death Race for a Covid-19 Vaccine” by award winning Wall Street Journal reporter and bestselling author Gregory Zuckerman is the untold story of what went right.

It’s a riveting business, science, and public sector chronicle of the scientists’ epic sprint to create Covid-19 vaccines, fulfilling decades of unheralded yet revolutionary work on messenger RNA, virology, immunology, and more.

Transcript: Gregory Zuckerman

Chris Riback: Greg, thanks for joining me. I appreciate your time.

Greg Zuckerman: Great to be here.

Chris Riback: As I thought about your book in anticipation for reading it, the question I kept wondering, and you answer it a bit in the book. Maybe you can describe it here was, when did you know? Obviously there was no bigger story than COVID. When did you know you wanted to write the story about the race for the vaccine?

Greg Zuckerman: I think, to say, when did I know it was actually going to be effective? So I wanted to write the story early on, partly because I love the theme. I love that it was Moderna that was one of the companies leading the pack.

Chris Riback: Why Moderna specifically?

Greg Zuckerman: They’re very unlikely to be our saviors. They’re a company that people have been suspicious about for years, especially the CEO, Stephane Bancel. People accused him of being an Elizabeth Holmes, kind of character, misleading, exaggerating.

Chris Riback: Black turtlenecks.

Greg Zuckerman: Black turtlenecks. Exactly. Most people never heard of him. I hadn’t heard of them before 2020 and that which people heard about wasn’t very positive. Yet, they were the ones that might step up and get a vaccine for all of us, a produced one that was effective and protective. I found that, dynamically fascinating. That was early in 2020, I did a story for The Wall Street Journal about Moderna. Then I discovered these other companies that were just as unlikely that were chasing a vaccine, Nova vaccine. Nova vaccines, been a loser for years, failure after failure. They were making good progress. BioNTech, Who’s never heard of this company? Mines, Germany. I love that theme. I was going to say, I didn’t know how effective the vaccines would be. The people on the inside were optimistic, but even they were floored before the data came out later that year in 2020.

Chris Riback: And the scene that you paint, I think if memory serves was November 8th, that Pfizer got its news. Then I think, Moderna got its news November 15th, if I’m remembering the dates right from your book. To your point, about they’re not knowing what the results actually would be. I felt it, you feel the emotion of those executives and scientists sitting in the boardroom waiting. Do you have the results? Do you have the results from the trials? Then Euphoria, I hate to skip to the end of the book at the beginning of the conversation, but I guess we do know the punchline.

Greg Zuckerman: Yes. One of these things where the reader, I knew the reader would know the results as well, yet it was important for me to convey that trauma because there was a lot of trauma, like you said. There’s one thing, 50, 60% effectiveness, 70% to get 95% just floored the scientists themselves. They were on pins and needles, as you say. I tried to convey that because we could all imagine what it was like. There was so much at stake, all their efforts, there was their company’s future. Moderna blows this and everyone’s skeptical of everything about them. There’s just our lives and in this pandemic. And if they failed, then who knows what would’ve happened. So there was a lot at stake there.

Chris Riback: Yes, everyone betting the companies. To pick up on that point and what you raised just a moment ago. Moderna and Bancel and their reputation that they, and most particularly he had, BioNTech that no one knows. Was that on some level the key, did it matter, was it required that it was companies that had the ability or the requirement to take a long shot? Did it require long shot companies to make something like this happen that quickly? What was the “why”?

Greg Zuckerman: That’s a good question. I think it did. Because if you look at who went all out for these vaccines and who didn’t. Those who didn’t is just as an instructive and interesting to me. Companies like Merck, Merck is a vaccine giant. It created the MMR vaccine that we all give our kids, measles, mumps, rubella. Santa Fe GSK, they’re the guys that, who should have stepped up, and like you said, maybe they had more to lose. Part of the reason I go back in history and I start off with HIV the chase for HIV, because there’s a lot of parallel there and a lot of lessons. There too, the big guys often didn’t want to chase HIV. There’s more downside and upside. Vaccines are just not a very sexy business or they weren’t until this past year. Maybe it took a Moderna or BioNTech or Novavax to chase this new vaccine for the new pandemic, the new virus.

Chris Riback: The line that kept coming into my mind was, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

Greg Zuckerman: Yes, although Moderna, had they blown it, had this not worked. They had a lot to lose, frankly.

Chris Riback: Yes. It was unfair. I got this sense that’s part of the tension, part of the drama, that for me came across in the storytelling was, the outsider role. Some of them, bad boys is too strong. Just the personalities of the companies and the individuals.

Greg Zuckerman: Very much so.

Chris Riback: Greg, obviously two of the key characters, really interesting characters, the CEO of Moderna, Stephane Bancel, as you’ve said, and the co-founder of BioNTech, Uğur Şahin, tell me about the two of them?

Greg Zuckerman: They’re fascinating. In some ways, whether they accomplished anything or not, they’re interesting and worth learning about in my view anyway. Şahin is a cancer researcher, not an infectious disease specialist. He spent his years, his life, that was his goal to fight cancer, creative vaccine for cancer. He never really has got there. He still focused on it still optimistic, but he is just an interesting guy. He’s all about science lives in a little apartment, bikes to work, doesn’t own a car. Doesn’t own a television, logs scientific papers on vacation with his wife and even computers come with him on their vacation. He is all about the science and his people are in some ways modeled after him.

Bancel at Moderna is not a scientist. He’s a Harvard MBA engineer. He’s a hard driving guy, an inspirational guy as well, he has high expectations for his people. Early on, it was difficult for them. People were literally collapsing at their desk collapsing in the parking lot of Moderna, at home, hitting their heads, going to hospital, trying to keep up with this guy. There was a reason he was pushing hard. He had a vision and to his credit, he was right at the end. The mRNA could change the world, that’s what his view was.

Chris Riback: You touched on another point that I really wanted to ask you about, which was the history. You spend a lot of time in the book, on the history. First, how would you describe, to friends, what you’re writing? Obviously in the race for the vaccine. In your mind, is it a science book? Is it a business book? Is it a history book? Is it an adventure book? I felt all of those.

Greg Zuckerman: Yes. I aimed it to be all those. I always feel with most of my books, there are two audiences, there’s the general audience and I think of my wife, who doesn’t know much about science. I didn’t really, before I started my research also, frankly. And the scientists themselves. You want it to be entertaining for everyone, but also educational. My approach is always, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, meaning these are real complex issues we’re talking about biology and my other books, its math and science also sometimes. It’s got to be entertaining. There’s no way you want to invest the time in reading a book, you’re spending the money. I want to entertain you too. There are ways to do it together. I’ve heard a lot from the scientific community. They’re like, “We didn’t know this history.” You could be a top scientist, biologist, rheologist, you don’t know the history of how these even approaches. That’s what I’m hoping to give you and all that drama along the way. There’s a lot of drama.

Chris Riback: Did they know the cowpox/smallpox story?

Greg Zuckerman: Even that, they didn’t know the full story.

Chris Riback: Tell me now, just for any of the listeners who aren’t aware. You really draw that through line from smallpox and cowpox and polio and HIV. As you mentioned, that’s the through line of the history. Just quickly because I raised it and you’ll tell it better than I will the smallpox, cowpox story.

Greg Zuckerman: Sure. Just taking a step back quickly. What is a vaccine? A vaccine is an education for the new system. Historically there’s been a traditional way, conventional way of producing those. Everything’s changed lately with these new approaches that I write about in my book. In terms of cowpox, there was a man named Edward Jenner in England who had a woman working for him who seemed-

Chris Riback: A dairy maid, yes.

Greg Zuckerman: A dairy maid, right, exactly. Who seemed like she was inoculated somehow against smallpox and it turns out that she had some experience with a version, a lesser type of pathogen, similar though, a cousin to smallpox. He put two and two together and he started injecting his own family with smallpox, which was unheard of at the time and people around, in his area were scared. They thought he was going to get them sick and also put horns on them. There was this whole fear about, don’t ask me why, horns. It turns out they were fine and he didn’t really write down his results or publicize them. He doesn’t really get the credit, but that’s the first vaccine. Throughout history, that was kind of the idea. You put, what we called a killed or an attenuated version, or that means weakened version of the actual virus in you.

When it came to HIV, it was too dangerous to put HIV in you. We had to come up with new approaches and I really start off with HIV in a lot of ways, because that’s how some of these new approaches began. The J&J COVID vaccine today, as well as the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine. They both evolved from something called, a dental virus, using in a virus, a weakened, a harmless virus, I should say. A harmless virus to shepherd genetic message into the body to create something. In this case, it’s the coronavirus, the spike protein, usually you create a protein. Anyway, it’s a new approach now with the vaccines. We don’t put in, when it comes to mRNA or just a dental virus approach, that’s created all these vaccines that are existing right now for COVID. We don’t actually put the virus itself in you. I try to give you a little history about the evolution of these approaches and how revolutionary these new ones are.

Chris Riback: Which also made me think, many of us think about the vaccine, the COVID vaccine that was created, we hear political leaders, business leaders talk about it. It was a miracle. It was a one year miracle, never before in history. You mentioned, I think it was mumps, right? Mumps vaccine, you write was the fastest ever developed and that took in your words, “A long four years.” And yet, as I read your book, it made me think about it differently that, in a way it kind of wasn’t a one year vaccine, it was a 20 year vaccine or a 40 year vaccine. Is that fair or what it is, its every vaccine starts with a base of historical knowledge and when the clock really should start ticking is when you start working on the new virus or the new thing that you’re trying to create the vaccine for?

Greg Zuckerman: No, It’s a very fair point. It’s actually one that I hope people take, especially vaccine wary people, take from my book. I’ve gone on Fox a few times so far, I’ve done Fox radio. Part of my goal is, I’m not here to tell people what to do, but you cannot come away from my book thinking, there’s no way you can come to the conclusion that it was a fast vaccine, that it was rushed, it wasn’t hard in any way. As you say, these approaches literally took decades to get right, to home, to improve. One should be reassured. Had they ever created a coronavirus vaccine? Well, they had actually, but not for this coronavirus, obviously. It was a new virus, so there’s no way they could have had this vaccine for this virus done before 2020. That was done extraordinarily fast, the fastest ever. These approaches were honed years and it should be reassuring for people.

Chris Riback: The global aspect, that’s been talked about, but it also becomes very clear for you. French executive, the Turkish head of BioNTech, US folks, British, global disease, global set of, to exaggerate the point, superheroes fighting the disease. How did you feel about the global nature of the effort? Was that part of what made it possible? Meaning, Did you need a global perspective or did it just work out that way?

Greg Zuckerman: I don’t know if we needed it, but I think it’s important theme that university of Oxford scientists, these scientists in Germany and Mines Germany that I write about, BioNTech, a lot of immigrants. Even the scientists in America are in executives too, are immigrants. Albert Bourla CEO of Pfizer. CEO of Moderna, as you say, Stephan Bancel, immigrant from France. It’s a very American story in that it’s a lot of entrepreneurs, a lot of risk taking, investors took enormous risks. We couldn’t have done this, these vaccines without American support. There’s no way none of these vaccines could have been done. They all got money from American investors, American bodies. It’s global, nature’s a global, obviously illness, virus, and increasingly we’re in age of these kind of things. It will take global efforts to stop the next one as well.

Chris Riback: You just mentioned the investment aspect. That’s also one of the tensions. There’s so much in the book. That’s why I was asking, business book, history book, science book. Your day job is with The Wall Street Journal. You’ve written books about business, about private equity. It’s a whole part of the world that you come into this endeavor understanding incredibly well. I felt tension in some of what you were describing around these healthcare executives needing to search for VC money, the pressure that they would feel, some of the stocks were down after the IPOs. Now I’m forgetting the exact circumstance, was it in the HIV section where it was the leader of the company who turned off some of the US government officials because-

Greg Zuckerman: Yes. MicroGenesis.

Chris Riback: I forget the exact… that was the one. Did you mean, for me to take away that sense of the tension between the investment component and the health care component? Is that something that you see always in this type of activity or did you learn something different or see it differently by doing this research?

Greg Zuckerman: One thing that struck me doing the research, when you talk to scientists and this could be academics, could be government scientists, private industry, it’s all about the money. I don’t mean the upside in getting rich, although that’s in the back of the mind of some of these people, it’s just raising money and getting money for your lab and getting grant proposals. It’s such financial pressure, that I hadn’t been conscious of enough. And these startups have to keep raising money. It’s a finance book to me as much as it is a book about science. Frankly, these vaccines are modern science’s greatest achievement, but they’re also, I think modern finance’s greatest achievement.

I write about, in May 2020, how no one was there to help Moderna, the government. This is before Warp Speed wrote any checks to Moderna. The government wasn’t there, Merck didn’t want to work with Moderna, the Gates foundation blew him off. Bancel and Moderna had to turn to Wall street. They turned to Morgan Stanley specifically, they wrote a $1.2 billion check. They were despondent before that money. They thought they were running out of cash and they couldn’t build these vaccines. It’s a financial achievement as well.

Chris Riback: How much luck was involved?

Greg Zuckerman: I think we, as a people, don’t realize, don’t appreciate how lucky we are in that. The methods were pretty much there going into 2020. They didn’t know they had an approach, both mRNA and dental virus that would lead to such effective vaccines, but they thought so they were pretty confident. Had this virus evolved, emerged 2017, 2016 just a few years ago, it would’ve been such a different story. I don’t think we appreciate how lucky we are, mankind is.

Chris Riback: I was able to talk several months ago with Walter Isaacson, who blurbed your book, but also about his book and on Jennifer Doudna. I think that people just don’t, whether it’s CRISPR or mRNA, the advances, the BioNTech advances, what they mean on the business front, the health front, science front, is extraordinary. What are the major long term takeaways that you note? You were just talking about it a moment ago, project Warp Speed and Moderna. Is this approach could offer a model for society showing how private public partnerships can and should work. It’s one of the items or themes that you touch on. Greg, I want to believe that. And my pushback, my question would be, this was a crisis for humanity. The world had shut down. It’s like we were invaded by aliens so everyone came together. Do you believe that the lessons can be applied, will be applied to normal times?

Greg Zuckerman: When I say it’s a lesson, I don’t necessarily mean we’ve learned the lesson, it’s a lesson we should be learning. I’m skeptical. Even historically, they had a Marshall plan, or a Manhattan project, it’s hard to apply that approach elsewhere. This is on par with that kind of thing. Given how divided our nation is to come together for anything at all. You would’ve thought that we would come together for a few years or so, given the pandemic and what we’ve had to deal with, but it was maybe a few weeks or a month at most. I’m skeptical. I was one of the people that said, once these things are authorized, these vaccines are approved. For sure everyone would embrace them, who wouldn’t want to get back. I’m kind of naive with that kind of stuff. So when I write it to lesson, I’m not sure it’s one that we’ve fully learned.

Chris Riback: What’s next? When you think about what some of the lesson, I understand we were just talking about the private public partnership lessons, but the role for mRNA, the role for private investment, the partnerships on the BioNTech side, between those outsiders and the established players. Any of those components that you saw, that you think create a new paradigm or if you were to start thinking about your next book, if you were going to write a follow up on this theme. Anything that strikes you as important, going forward?

Greg Zuckerman: As part of my research for my book, I’ve talked to, and I continue to talk to all kinds of scientists, researchers within a lot of these companies, BioNTech, Moderna, et cetera. I’ve been reassured that they’re not sitting back and counting their cash. They’re redeploying it in areas that are revolutionary potentially, cancer, HIV, autoimmune disease, instead of turning on the immune system, maybe we can turn it off when we need to. There are other viruses that need to be taken care of that I think they’re going to make good progress on RSV, CMV. There are a few not, so you could look back on this era, believe it or not. And see it as a lot of good came from it. If they take all the money and they hone these approaches and they make advances, make headway on cancer and those kinds of things, how remarkable. In some ways this could be the beginning of a new era.

I don’t want to get over confident about that or optimistic just because historically as I write in my book, mRNA hasn’t really worked with drugs. It’s only worked on this one vaccine so far. I think it’ll work with other vaccines. I think it’ll actually work for a heart drug. They’re working on VEGF. There are challenges ahead. I have to tell you Uğur Şahin, the quirky interesting scientists who runs BioNTech, Stephan Bancel, all their people. They’re really hard driving lot. They’re not sitting back or anything. I’m eager to see what they have, what’s in store in the next few years.

Chris Riback: I am as well and thank you. Your outline is a terrific narrative and story, an adventure, business science, and it all came together. As you said, even though I knew the punchline, I still felt that emotion when we got there. The popping of the champagne on November 8th, I guess, 2020, Sunday afternoon, in Connecticut, you paint a scene. You know the punchline, you don’t know what that feels like until, at least I didn’t, until I read your book.

Greg Zuckerman: I, personally, I don’t know if you remember the scene. I remember at the beginning there, I was kind of sweating when I heard it myself, when he’s described. This is Stephen Ho, he’s looking, he’s on the zoom. And he’s looking at the faces before he has the results, then during his results, aren’t out yet, he’s waiting for results. He’s just, and I can see it, because I would be like that too. You’re looking at their face and you’re trying to read into their expressions. Are they looking happy? Are they looking disappointed? Are they well, what is that look? Momentarily, he was going to get the results, but he wanted to know as soon as he could. I felt that tension myself so I wanted to convey some of the drama to the readers of the book. Hopefully that was successful.

Chris Riback: Yes. It sure was. The other point that hit me, which you can, you know this. From reading about you a little bit. I think you’re a sports fan too. As 2020 was progressing, and I was reading your tick-tock on Pfizer’s ahead, Moderna is ahead. I had this image of the train races, whether at Yankee stadium or wherever, and like the six trains ahead, but then it’s the fourth train, it felt that was the image.

Greg Zuckerman: That’s a good image.

Chris Riback: That was going through my head-

Greg Zuckerman: Oxford in the lead and then they stumble. I felt like the whole thing’s of a relay race. The science along the way, even with mRNA at one lab and one scientist makes progress. He stumbles and fails, passes it to another woman. She bakes some progress and fails. I saw it a little bit of, like a relay race.

Chris Riback: Thank you and thanks for taking the time to discuss it.

Greg Zuckerman: Sure. Great chatting with you.