In our current world of lockdowns, restrictions and social distancing, pre-pandemic existence can feel like a distant memory. The reality is that the COVID-19 virus, and the global chaos it has brought with it, only became a recognisable threat just over eighteen months ago. A pneumonia-like respiratory illness that swept Wuhan in December of 2019 quickly became an international health emergency, starting the race to find a vaccine that would combat what was proving to be a deadly infection.
Vaccine: The Inside Story documents this incredible feat of medical research, from the first news reports of the outbreak in central China to the mass production of the life-saving vaccines now being distributed across the planet.
Vaccines have long been the most convincing answer to the question of controlling epidemics and disease, arguably saving more lives than any other health intervention. When he first heard reports of the events unfolding in Wuhan, leading infectious disease expert Dr George Gu Gao, who had been involved in the control of the SARS outbreak years earlier, knew immediately that a novel coronavirus such as this would pose a very real and imminent danger to not only the citizens of China, but nations around the world.
The inclusion of never-before-seen CCTV footage from his lab sees the documentary capture the moment where the first microscopic images of the virus were produced. These were the images that set in motion the process of genetically sequencing it, a crucial first piece of the vaccine development puzzle.
This sequencing, which would have normally taken a couple of months at best, was completed in just a couple of days, the impressive speed of the task aided by access to the latest mapping techniques. Once the results were shared with the international scientific community, the information was out there for the greatest minds in the world to see. It quickly became clear that a virus with this level of transmissibility would demand team work on a worldwide scale. If it knew no borders, as its rapid spread attested, a widespread effort would be needed to stop it in its tracks.
The excitement and sense of urgency in the documentary is palpable as pioneering scientists across five continents began to tackle the challenges of developing a vaccine that would combat this complex infection. Among them was Irish scientist Teresa Lambe from Oxford University’s Jenner Institute, a co-developer of what would later become the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. Though the various iterations of the vaccine may appear to some to be an overnight development, as the documentary highlights, teams of scientists just like Teresa’s had been waiting in the wings, armed with a ready-to-go prototype for a situation just like this. All they needed was this all-important genetic sequence from China, and now they had it.
Closer to home, molecular virologist Dr Keith Chappell from the University of Queensland was the co-leader of a very similar team. Just like Teresa, he too was looking to develop a vaccine from the spike protein of the new coronavirus, but through a very different approach using molecular clamp core technology. The paralleling of each contender in this worldwide race for a vaccine provides a rare opportunity to witness first-hand the work of these groups, and perhaps more importantly, the incredible resilience and perseverance that drove them.
There are many paths to the top of the mountain, and in the case of the particular mountain presented by COVID-19, each path was determined by the hands that each nation were dealt. For the cross-Atlantic team behind the US manufactured Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, they decided to take a new route with the information they had, using the technology of a messenger RNA vaccine. Despite the different approaches, it’s clear that none of these teams could have anticipated the sheer scale of the media response, and the intense scrutiny that would accompany the inevitable stumbling blocks they would face.
If there is one thing the documentary provides, it’s a huge amount of admiration for the ingenuity of the individuals behind this research, and empathy for the level of personal sacrifice required of each of them in ensuring a rapid response to the global cry for a vaccination. It’s hard to imagine the intense pressure of a rising death toll, and the subsequent need to compress time to make the rigorous development, trial and manufacturing processes efficient enough to keep up with growing demand.
As the video diaries of the scientists involved show, they were also balancing huge international and domestic political pressure to produce a result while trying to maintain some semblance of a normal life. The emotional rollercoaster that accompanied this journey is not to be ignored, particularly when discoveries made along the process in spite of the challenges have undeniably changed science forever.
The fight against COVID-19 will be ongoing, and so too will the groundbreaking research that continues to drive it, especially with a target that is already shifting and changing. So, as we prepare to reap the promised freedoms and protection that these vaccines purport to provide, let’s spare a thought for the brilliant minds that made them possible and the huge amount of human effort that got us here.
Vaccine: The Inside Story airs at 9.55pm on SBS, Sunday 12 September. The documentary is also now streaming at SBS On Demand.