tv Brendan Borrell The First Shots CSPAN April 14, 2022 11:55am-12:26pm EDT
top 21 winning videos of our student cam video documentary competition every morning before washington journal will bear one of our winners who documentaries told us how the federal government impacted their lives and you can watch all these documentaries anytime online at student cams.org. >> i'm a reporter at the new york times and i'm happy to be here tonight to talk with brendan brown, my friend and bo fellow journalist about his new book. i brendan. >> it's amazing that i've lived this and then your telling of what happened behind the scenes. i learned so much reading your book so tell me about how you got started . tell me about the genesis of the book, when did you come up with the idea and whythis ? >> you know, as we all
experienced the beginning of 2020 it was a very chaotic and confusing time. i'm a freelance journalist and i was planning my years as a pandemic was unfolding and basically all my projects had to get pushed back down the line. there was no travel and i was glued to the screen reading quite often in your articles. you were in the thick of it. and here i am a freelancer trying to figure out how to contribute my skills to this project and i think the first step for me was i called up an old source of mine. he's a doctor from massachusetts general el hospital named michael callahan and he's like this swastika in infectious disease guy who's dropping into hot zonesall over the world . i read a profile of him like 10years earlier .
he's always doing something interesting so i finally agreed to reach him and he said i got back from wuhan and i'm working for the trump administration so i said i'm going to keep talking to you. >> that's amazing. he's an interesting character and you started the book for him with him but it takes you into the action right away so that was a great choice. you said you were reading a lot of my articles but it was crazy to be writing those articles because we were learning about it every single day. how did you make the decision to cover something that was changing on a daily basis and how did you even begin to gather your information when things were changing on a daily, hourly, weekly basis . >> it was hard for me to decide what to focus on. so i talked to callahan and then i started writing a few pieces here and there and by march and april we knew that
the only way to end this pandemic or to reduce the mortality was a vaccine. but even then this landscape was just changing faster these days. there was the basic science, much of which was new to me. i'm a science journalist but i don't cover ervaccine apology all that. i had to learn what anti-bodieswere and how they were created again . but yes, the vaccine landscape was crazy. back then they were saying 250 companies working on the vaccine, operation work speed had not even been announced and i signed a contract with the publisher that i was going to somehow deliver a book and i needed to do this but my feelers and figure out what direction was going to give me a story.a story that was going to kind of stand the test of time. i can say that because i wanted something evil would be reading two years later and still getsomething out of
it . that was a challenge. >> i think you delivered on that because behind the scenes look at how we got the vaccine is so interesting and i think people will be wanting to learn about that for quite along time . you said you had to learn all about immunology and it's true for a lot of us. i really didn't know much about these cells when i started writing a virus either but given that the information thwas coming at us so quickly, how did you even report this thing. as he went along figuring out what comes first, what comes second. the vaccines, there were tons of candidates and my colleague at the time created a vaccine tracker and i think 95 percent of thosecandidates had fallen by the wayside . how did you comment on pfizer ? >> there was this groundswell, the first thing igi did after signing my
publishing contract was i was putting out feelers to the big players. and in hindsight we see that mark and sanofi were not successful but i think those were two of the first companies that i reached out to . si was also looking at these small companies that i but this isneat . i thought when i started this that i was going to try to get in the room with some of these companies. >> .. and i'm going to succeed and at was the story, we all know mcdermott was a secret company and i member just being frustrated every time i saw ceo stephan on sale can record somewhere else and then not. talking to me.
so itp became a strategic thing out of a a deep information id an step-by-step i m started building more and more sources within the government because of course with operation warp speed the companies are talking to the government, the companies are sending e-mails. there are notes and people want to tell that story and that became my way in and that became a threat of the whole book which it's the story of the creation of the story warp speed and incredibly the stored public-private partnership. >> tell me your secrets. how did you do that? how did you commit resources for small to talk to you and how did you make sure that they told you what happened in such colorful, detailed way? because we know that scientists people can be kind ofan dry and boring. how did you manage to convince them to be so colorful? >> it was ag long process. i remember beginning this thinking how am i going to make
the vaccine development and regulatory process interesting without being in the room, like you say. i was getting the door slammed in my face. i was not good to be a fly on the wall for conversations. i had to reconstruct staff after the fact. i was really at a a loss mostf the time entailed every once in a while i would sort of meet somebody who would say hey, actually i haveav no time that meeting, or would you like to take pictures of my calendar? gradually, o things opened up me and more kind of after the vaccine scott approved in november 2020 and then with the change of administration in january 2021 was when the floodgates really opened in terms of sourcing. i think as you know well, i mean, one source leads to another. you develop a relationship so i had some people during sort of the pandemic year like michael callahan would eventually led me to some folks inside health and
human services who were sort of talking to me but they weren't giving me those details that i craved, to put somebody in the rain. so it wasn't, it was just brute force of like i've got to do this, i need to go back to this person, i need to get documentation of that it somehow i managed pull it off. >> i think you more then pulled it off. it really has that sense of, this gripping story that's developing on a very fast pace. and actually that fast pace, part of it is your writing style but part of it is also it was an insanely fast process, right? we have not seen vaccines, this quickly. can you talk a little bit about that and how i think a lot of the general public may be doesn't fully appreciate how quickly this happened. and to get at these amazingly good vaccines. tell us a bit about that. >> we all know that we were told
very early on the pandemic, we may not even need a vaccine. oh, if we need a vaccine it's not going to be for 18 months, maybe two years. tony fauci was talked about that timeline very early in the spring of 2020 and is working with one of the leading vaccine developers on the covid vaccine and they also have had this sense of pessimism about the timeline.. and even i going into this i sort ofrd started with the launh of operation warp speed and we heard this bold timeline all, we're going to deliver 300 million doses by the end of 2020.. and there were scientists, respected scientist, people who develop vaccine in the past were just aghast at that idea. we didn't realizeow how much of the stop, what slows down vaccine development ise kind of the regulatory process and the
money and the companies not wanting to take their risk. and when you sort of move some of those hurdles out of the way and you combine that with some good scientific like, which i think people are very interested in hearing about, some of that and timeline becomes possible. but, of course, it did vaccines would have happened if it hadn't been so much research preceding this pandemic, number one. we had the success of the mrna platform which had been under development for a dream for 20 years, 30 years, under development at modernag for ten toning everything from the sort of lipid that the mrna is packaged in july you get this mrna vaccine, these genetic instructions into the body cells where they can stimulate the immune system just right to create that response we need so we can develop antibodies.
all of this stuff was kind of like on tap the moment the pandemic broke out. it does doesn't happen a yo earlier we would be still waiting i think. and then the second thing was oe are kind of lucky that it was a coronavirus because they were people who are concerned about coronaviruses, a small group of people admittedly who it's in the first sars outbreak 20 years ago and also were watching was happening, there were these other related coronaviruses like middle east respiratory syndrome and this is a lot of research was going into understanding these viruses, manipulating them and realizing the spike of the coronaviruses going to be an ideal target to go t for. and that was all ready to go right there in the beginning of 2020. so the kind of like out in that department as well. so scientific, regulatory and then hey, if you put $10 billion down you can speed things up quite easily.
but i think this whole process of course made people want to take vaccines very nervous. we have seen that and we're still seeing that people tell me all the time these vaccines were developed to quickly, theyck wee proved too quickly. i don't know if i trust them se h information and what went into all of us i think one of the things that make people a little nervous is actually the name and there's a fun story behind that so maybe you can tell us how operation warp speed came to be. it sounds like something you shouldn't trust that gets warm. yeah the work the worst thing man's got no got a lot of issues. um, but yeah, i i think it's kind of funny because warp speed is so associated with the trump administration you think oh, yeah. this is kind of this overblown thing, but it's actually the name comes from this nerdy vaccine regulator named peter marks who was one of the architects behind the idea of warp speed. he was a star trek fanon's youth
and he kind of you know codenamed his verse his project project work speed but the funny thing is actually the administration didn't really like that name. they they were they have these other ideas. they were gonna call it manhattan project 2.0 then they wanted to call it apollo's moon. but the week before or feed was about to be announced the biden was giving an interview and he referred to an apollo-like moonshot for vaccine is necessary and suddenly the the politico's were like we can't use the paulo moonshot and they said public affairs guy in the health department sob peter marks in the hallway before he's going to meeting and he said hey, what did you call it? and he said warp speed and that ended up in a bloomberg news story to that very day. so it was like named on the spot. which is really kind of crazy when you think about it because i think people did think it was, you know, put together like drug
names are with you know, some flashy committee and focus group and and no no it really was just peter marks and his star trek obsession. so that was a really funny sort of anecdote and peter marks has been in the news so much lately because he's now that you know, the number two at the fda and he makes so many decisions about boosters and vaccines which we will talk about a bit more, but you said early on mark and sanofi. they didn't really succeed and there was so much that had to be done for us to get to these mrna vaccines. we were so lucky. why is it so difficult to make vaccines and you know, there are a lot of companies that make them a lot of them are actually in india. it's the biggest vaccine manufacturer but in the rest of the world there hasn't been this really strong tradition of making vaccines in the last few decades. and why is that i think the reputation within the pharmaceutical industry is that they are not big winners apart from say the seasonal flu
vaccines and you know a few infectious disease vaccines out there most of the time when an emerging disease like the coronavirus catching a disease, but if the disease fades out then you might know okay this vaccine's safe, but i don't actually know how effective it is and then ultimately you don't have anyone to sell it to so much of the seen research takes place in the an academic laboratories in nonprofit institutions and then only later on is it with some luck picked up by pharmaceutical companies which know how to actually make a vaccine make it to the standards that we need to get it through the fda and yeah in the beginning of the of the covid pandemic there was a, you know,
i described in my book the scene at davos where all these major vaccine manufacturers are there in early january that everybody sing the news about wuhan but the vaccine manufacturers want to talk about their flu vaccine and they're basically mercantinocular like we're just going to watch and see what happens. i mean, of course there were some back channel negotiations happening visor, you know, very explicitly told bo in tech. it's biotech partner in germany. no, we don't think we're going to do a covid vaccine right now, you know, but of course they able to pivot and that's that's the big story is is that pfizer actually did step into the game, but the other companies that yeah, they they lost. what would have been i mean, what is four or five or one it's the biggest product this year. so tell, you know, it makes you wonder about that sort of common view that vaccines are not money makers. actually, you know, maybe maybe they aren't and when i was working on the book trying to actually get the data to look at
how much companies profit from vaccines was actually pretty tough. that is the view you're going to make more money from rare diseases from cancer medicines, but clearly a big disease like this is a good gamble, even if they have all of the intention having that market is so important because it's i mean infectious diseases are really such a much bigger problem in the global south. i just recently wrote about the malaria vaccine the first ever malaria vaccine and took 30 years to get that maxine and was no players in that and now that they have it the financing is going to be so difficult, you know gavi has to basically commit to buying millions of doses so that african kids can live. it's a very messed up system in many ways. so it's great that it worked out for us, but it doesn't seem like it's really set up to help people when it doesn't affect the entire world. the other example of the hiv
vaccine which has been such a scientific challenge. that is a much more difficult disease to attack than um than covid. and and i just want to go back to kind of why why vaccines are difficult to develop which is you know, going back to the safety issues which is with a with a medicine. you're you're giving a medicine to people who are already sick, you know, there's a lower bar there than if you giving something healthy people you're giving it to a lot more people to prevent a disease and even a rare side effect is is a problem and i think that scares away a lot of the vaccine makers we know i mean that the i think vaccine resistance is actually a real puts a real dent in the market because i mean like the lyme disease vaccine was pulled from the market years ago for you know, some unsubstantiated claims of side effects. it doesn't seem like companies really want to wade into those territories if there is all of
this resistance. how much of that is is real though. i mean are there safety issues with vaccines? are there any big problems that we just don't know about there are very very i mean with the the coronavirus the data come in for the cdc's been telling that up. we've had millions of doses that have been deployed and i mean what, you know a few hundred cases of some very very rare side effects most of which resolve on their own right? i'm a corporate you're probably more familiar with some of these latest numbers. yeah, other than myocarditis that very rare heart problem with covid vaccines. we haven't really seen many problems at all with j&j. there was that issue of blood clots and some young women, but they're all extremely extremely rare. so yeah, i think with covid vaccines we've definitely been very lucky and even with other vaccines i think of vaccines as actually much safer than a lot of drugs we take that have pretty strong side effects. but as you said, i think people
just have this really strong psychological barrier against taking something when they're not sick. i mean we all sort of live with this hubris, right? it's not gonna happen to me. i'm not gonna get it. everybody else around me might but i'm gonna be fine. so i just don't want to take the chance. so i think there are a lot of people who think that way and that's partly why the anti-vax movement has gotten so strong during covid too because there's so many people who don't take covid very seriously. the mrna vaccines especially the safety profile seems to be great and you know in other infectious disease worlds, there's a lot of excitement actually about these now for hiv which you mentioned and formal area, which i was talking about earlier before we move off this vaccine development this particular specific topic. what do you think? the public doesn't know about vaccine development that you learn during the reporting of this book that you you think they should know? yeah, i think that there were a couple things so number one one
of the dramas in the book that i found very fascinating that didn't get that much coverage was how do you pull off a vaccine trial amid a pandemic? how do you plan it, you know because of this whole process of you know, the bat the possibility that the disease is going to vanish before you have a chance to test it and you know, one of the details that i loved on covering was when the national institutes is health was advising on the operation or speed trials. they actually had an ethical consult about running the trails in prisons which were experiencing these horrific outbreaks and they were thinking this could be a way to very quickly test the vaccine you remember we were hearing about challenge trials the there were great number of people were thinking that's going to be the most efficient way to do it. well the nih just said, you know what actually this is naturally happening in this place in the end. we didn't need to use all of these tools. is covid spread across the country over the summer by the early fall.
it was clear that we're going to get an answer very quickly, but i think the tools that we're developed in terms of tracking the spread of the disease and figuring out how to locate the trials that potentially be very useful for running trials on a very fast timeline with other infection emerging diseases. so i hope those lessons are share i you know, not a politics reporter or i'm this i don't i barely know how government worked when i started this and i just found myself so impressed by like the dedicated civil servants all at all levels, even i dare say political appointees who are you know often not not very glorified and having you know, they have their issues, but it was just there was so much passion and you must have experienced this talking to people like crisis just brings together people and it also divides them in certain ways, and i i learned so much talking
to to civil servants. yeah, that was definitely something that was very striking i think about this pandemic is you know, i've reported on the cdc before in the fda before and people are generally, you know go through their press office. they follow all the rules but during the pandemic so many of them were willing to talk to the press because they felt things were being done that they completely disagreed with and one of the things that i was really impressed with is that they felt they were being villainized in the media. they felt really demoralized because they were being tweeted poorly all their work was being warped and destroyed by the trump administration. they were getting all this political interference and things they wrote were getting rewritten to say something that they would never stand behind. and yet, you know many of them didn't want to quit they wanted to quit but they decided no, i'm actually more needed here even though i'm unhappy even though i'm miserable i want to stay and starve my country and i thought that was just a really you know
powerful thing to see all these civil servants as you said, you know, and the cdc a lot of them are actually commissioned officers and the part of the military and they have this really strong sense of service, which i think i didn't fully realize before the pandemic how committed and how intensely focused they are on their mission. that was a very cool thing to see you're right. yeah, i'm curious support because i mean you have done so much reporting on the cdc like you mentioned you you reported on the the guidance documents being being altered with respect to the testing policies last year and then this year going back to the vaccines. we have this this interesting situation with the booster shots. i mean, this was something i i really struggled with and reporting this book was understanding what is political interference, you know, there's this sort of divide between how does an administration be operational but how does it take into it account scientific
advice? i'm wondering if you have a clear view of that topic having considering your reporting. you know, i think there's always been political interference but every administration it's just a matter of degrees and the trump administration took it to an all-new level where you don't really have to guess at what political interference meant. it meant people would say one thing and they were completely overruled and asked to do something. really different so, you know the testing one that you mentioned for example, there were scientists who were working very hard on a guidance document and then essentially retroar the deputy health and human services secretary came in rewrote the whole thing. and then that's what went up as if it had been written by cdc scientists. so that's you know, the one extreme of political interference where they're just being completely railroaded. the biden administration it's been a little bit different in some ways a little bit subtler, but i think the end result is similar in that they got so far ahead of this conversation on boosters, you know president biden went up there and said
boosters for everyone way before any of the federal scientists had had a chance to review anything. and so it's like a complete like they couldn't have done anything else. they had to authorize the boosters because otherwise they would have really created a lot of confusion for the public it would have shown some level of dissension within the government that would have been, you know, uncomfortable not just for the administration, but for all citizens, they moved to believe do we believe the white house? do we believe the fda? and so, you know one of the things that i've been really fascinated by in the last few weeks to months is that individually when i've talked to any of the advisors to the fda or the cdc the vast majority of them do not believe that boosters are required for anybody under 65 and yet we've seen unanimous vote after unanimous vote go through to say yes, let's have blisters for everybody. so it's a little bit confusing and i think that that's a different kind of political interference where you basically
he tied their hands without meaning to perhaps or maybe he was intentional, but he sort of made it clear that that's what would happen. the booster story has been incredible and it's been incredibly frustrated for me since my book ended in may of 2021. but no, i think. i i think it's put me in this interesting position in the people are always asking me the guy who wrote the vaccine book. should i get a booster or not? and when you come down on that. well, i i say well if you got the madonna shot, maybe wait a little bit longer because we've seen some evidence at them and the immunity from the moderna shots lasts a little bit longer, but it it was striking to me how much fiser also was pushing very early on to make boosters part of the conversation and i mean
pfizer has has played this game very well. i will say that extremely well extremely well, they pulled way ahead of all of the competition and they just keep going. i mean with the kids with the boosters they were just so far ahead of all the other companies and and they have made record profits like you said, so it's worked out very well for them. and i think that's a really good place to end this convers. station because yeah, i think it really illustrates something. that's so true of your book, which is you learn a lot. but also it's highly entertaining and the true brendan borrell style of writing. so, thank you so much for answering all of my prying question
>> very helpful to me. >> using material from c-span's award-winning biography series first ladies. >> i'm very much the kind of person who believes that you should say what you mean and mean what you say and take the consequences. >> and c-span's online video liberia will feature first ladies lady bird johnson, betty ford, roslyn carter, nancy reagan, hillary clinton, laura bush, michelle obama and melania trump. watch "first ladies: in their own words" saturday's at 2 p.m. eastern on american history tv on c-span2 or listen to the series as as a podcast on the c-span now free mobile app or wherever you get your podcasts. >> booktv every sunday on
c-span2 features leading authors discussing their latest nonfiction books. at two p.m. eastern coverage of the virginia festival of the book in charlottesville with author discussions on american colonialism, medical and legal injustice. and michael craig part on his book winning and losing the nuclear. on "after words" former texas republican congressman will hurd with his book american reboot an idealist guide to getting big things done argues america needs a restart in order to address the challenges of the 21st century. he's interviewed by utah republican congressman blakemore. watch booktv every sunday on c-span2 and find a full schedule on your program to watch online any time at booktv.org. >> i'm john walters comprehensive you of hudson institute. i am very, very happy to be joined today by the authors of this new