August 3, 2021

“Covid-19, the vaccine race”, on Arte, explains how laboratories have developed a vaccine so quickly


It’s a timely film. While vaccination is proving essential to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, it answers a widespread question: how have laboratories managed to bring a vaccine to the market in such a short time? The cameras followed the work of five scientific teams for fifteen months, as closely as possible, in their laboratories but also at home. Their hopes, their expectations, their doubts …

It all starts in China. Doctor George Fu Gao received, on the evening of December 30, 2019, an email informing him of the existence of a pulmonary virus, which he identified as being a coronavirus. This allows his team to immediately start sequencing, published for free on January 10, effectively launching the global vaccine race. Dr. Gao will be at the origin of the development of the Sinopharm vaccine.

Read our survey: The silences of China, a virus spotted in 2013, the false trail of the pangolin … Investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2

In the United Kingdom, the Jenner Institute in Oxford is following the trail of a classic viral vector vaccine. Irish researcher Teresa Lambe remembers going to her computer without even having taken the time to get dressed, in pajamas. She and her colleague Katie Ewer will be at the origin of the development of the AstraZeneca.

Messenger RNA, a new technology

At the National Institute of Health in Washington (United States), Professor Barney Graham and his assistant Kizzmekia Corbett are leaving with a head start to have studied other respiratory viruses. But their Moderna vaccine will be delayed during phase 3 of clinical trials, due to the lack of African-American volunteers, reluctant to serve as “guinea pigs”.

In Mainz (Germany), Ugur Sahin, director of the German company BioNTech, is teaming up with the Pfizer research center in New York to work on messenger RNA, a new technology, which will require numerous tests, all carried out “Without the slightest limit of resources”, appreciates Kathrin U. Jansen, Vice President of Pfizer, in charge of vaccine research.

Read the survey: The messenger RNA vaccine saga now in the final sprint

In Brisbane, Australia, researchers at the University of Queensland, led by Dr Keith Chappell, are working on a protein vaccine “Known and mastered”, as long as it is stabilized with a tiny fragment of a protein found in HIV.

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The frenetic pace is paying off, since the first vaccines will have the marketing authorization one year after the start of research. Even if the pressure on scientists is sometimes unbearable, in the face of the growing number of deaths – “A burden too heavy to bear”, one of them said.

Read the decryption: How Covid-19 Vaccines Work

While the realization struggles to conclude its demonstration, however very educational on the benefits of vaccination, the viewer will note the absence of the Russian vaccine Sputnik in this Anglo-Saxon production. He may remember that, according to Dr. Graham, “Every time we manage to convince 1000 people to be vaccinated, we save 10 lives.”

Covid-19, the vaccine race, by Catherine Gale (RU-EU, 2021, 91 min). On until September 17.