So today I am going to do what I said I’d do yesterday and post about a book I’d just finished. I hesitate to call it a review…I mean, these people published a book and I haven’t, who am I to say what goes into making it. But similar to a review, it will be a collection of my thoughts on the book, the subject, its themes, and maybe whether I recommend it or not. I hope this becomes, not a regular post, but a more common post as I plow my way through the books I have left unread at home, of which there are many.
Yes, I have a problem. Shut up.
A Shot to Save The World by Gregory Zuckerman
The full title is actually A Shot to Save The World: The Remarkable Race and Groundbreaking Science Behind the Covid — 19 Vaccines, but that is just wayyyyyy too long and I’m going to pull something if I keep referring to it by that title.
I bought this book because the Financial Times recommended it. And also because of the premise; Gregory Zuckerman, an investigative journalist for the Wall Street Journal, goes behind the scenes to uncover the perilous path that the researchers took to develop and distribute the Covid — 19 vaccines. We follow Stephane Bancel, the CEO of Moderna, Ugur Sahin (I’m misspelling his name here; it’s got those Turkish curly letters which my keyboard can’t create), co-founder of BioNTech, and many, many other scientists as they create what allows me to be typing this from the comfort of my own office instead of still being under lockdown, or, God Forbid, choking on my own body fluids in an ICU.
Right away, the book surprises. It has 19 chapters (get it?) and Chapter 1 starts in the 1980s — just as AIDS was discovered. You may wonder why, but soon it becomes clear; that is how far back you have to go to understand the origins of viral vaccination. If you, like me, wondered how they managed to push a vaccine out for distribution so quickly (by all rights we should still be in the 2020 lockdowns awaiting new vaccines), then this book explains it.
Science, as is commonly portrayed in media, isn’t a bunch of old dudes sitting around test tubes and one of them holds them up in awe and reverence while whispering, “Eureka.”
No, science is a bunch of dudes sitting around a lab trying to publish some papers. And the reason for publishing those papers could be anything from money, fame, getting grants to do the research you actually want to do…or in the case of the scientists of the 1980s, to cure AIDS. That’s right — the whole viral vaccine thing began as an attempt to develop a vaccine against AIDS, hence why we start there.
From that starting point, we follow along with various scientists as they push the boundaries of vaccination science. Many approaches are sought, discarded, and some even got laughed at. How many of you took the Pfizer — BioNTech vaccine? If you did, you might know that the vaccine uses mRNA to send instructions to your cells to create an immune response. This book shows that as recently as, oh, 2020, the Biotech community apparently doubted that the mRNA approach had any value. I’m put in mind of those scenes in movies, where the scientist pleads to The Council that his research will work and they just laugh at him. You know, like in Arcane with Jayce and the Hextech. That’s exactly what happened to mRNA researchers. Art does imitate life, apparently.
The book is incredibly informative, and being a WSJ reporter, the author knows how to keep your attention through the chapters. He starts with AIDS. He continues into mRNA, and then into its delivery, and about getting funding, proving that mRNA works…there’s a real sense of following along inside the labs of these scientists with a camera during their key moments. This actually leads to some weird pacing; the book doesn’t talk about Covid — 19 until about the last 1/8th of the book, but as a quote from Lenin in the book itself explains;
“There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen.”
This is incredibly true in the writing. Before the book’s timeline gets to 2020, you get the sense that the research is moving along, but slowly. People have time to publish papers and throw a stink about which publications to go to with said papers. They attend talks and symposiums, or in other words, go very, very slowly. Once 2020 hits it’s an all out race to see who can develop their vaccine first, and the pace of the book similarly picks up. It seems like an odd choice at first, but that reflects the reality of the situation — and why they were able to get vaccines made relatively quickly.
If you were at all curious about the development of the vaccine you took, I suggest giving it a go. As I’ve mentioned yesterday, there’s nary a bit of technobabble in it so it’s understandable by those not in the bio — med fields. Not a bad first book of 2022.