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CNN Films & BBC announce Wingspan documentary following scientific journey to COVID-19 vaccines

Documentary produced by Wingspan Productions and Global Health Reporting Center, in association with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Tangled Bank Studios, tells the inside story of the biggest scientific challenge of our age – how a small, international group of vaccine scientists took on COVID-19.

CNN Films and BBC announced today the joint commission of a feature documentary film following the unprecedented global quest to develop, trial, manufacture, and distribute effective vaccines to fight the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.  RACE FOR THE VACCINE on CNN in the U.S., and the same film under the working title VACCINE: THE INSIDE STORY on BBC Two in the U.K., is rooted in extraordinary access during 2020 to the leading vaccine research teams around the world, including scientists behind the Pfizer/BioNTech, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) /Moderna, and the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccines in development.  The film will be produced and directed by award-winning British filmmaker and former virologist Catherine Gale (The Joy of Winning), and co-directed by award-winning American medical journalist and independent filmmaker Caleb Hellerman.  Executive producers are Janet Tobias (Unseen Enemy) and Rogger Lopez (Memory Games) of Global Health Reporting Center (GHRC); Archie Baron (Motherland – A Genetic Journey) of Wingspan Productions; Amy Entelis, Katie Hinman, and Courtney Sexton of CNN Films; Tom Coveney of BBC; Sean B. Carroll and Jared Lipworth of Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Tangled Bank Studios.  The film has also been supported by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

"How pandemics end depends so much on how they begin, so I wanted to tell the story of the scientists who were ready and waiting for COVID-19.  The story of their race against time to develop vaccines, and the lessons we take from it, will shape the future for us all, so it’s never been more important that we dive into their world.  I’ve been truly inspired by them,” said producer / director Gale.

“This pandemic is a global catastrophe.  But, we saw right away that, even as many leaders were failing us, these scientists were stepping up.  This is the story of a handful of people, under incredible pressure, with the fate of the world in their hands,” said co-director Hellerman.

CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, MD, a producer for RACE FOR THE VACCINE, will also narrate the North American broadcast.   “The search for a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19 is the essential human advancement for 2020, if not for this generation,” said Dr. Gupta, on behalf of CNN Films.  “Catherine Gale and Caleb Hellerman bring a vital mix of reverence for the scientific discovery process, and a fluency of film language, to make this critical story both compelling and accessible to all,” he said.

Jack Bootle, BBC Head of Commissioning, science and natural history said, “it is an incredible privilege to be able to bring BBC Two viewers the inside story of the biggest scientific breakthrough of the 21st Century; a moment in medical history that we will remember forever.  With extraordinary access to the amazing women and men inside the world’s leading laboratories, Wingspan and their partners are making a film that everyone will need to see.”

When news of the novel coronavirus pandemic broke, most people were trying to learn how to survive the looming months.  A small group of elite scientists around the globe launched into action to take on perhaps the biggest challenge in the history of modern medicine.  The scope and speed of this effort has been unprecedented: producing multiple vaccines using different novel technologies, to neutralize a virus never seen before in humans.  RACE FOR THE VACCINE (on CNN) / VACCINE: THE INSIDE STORY (on BBC Two) also explores an emotional journey for its key characters, giving viewers insight into the ground-breaking discoveries, grueling endeavor, and personal sacrifices that led to this extraordinary moment of public health triumph. 

The film tracks key individuals from these and other vaccine teams in the U.S., Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia, following scientists, clinicians, and manufacturing experts through the struggles and triumphs of their work, from recruiting trial subjects and inventing new supply chains, to facing down political pressures to speed up science and potentially sacrifice safety.  The film also explores the contributions of the vaccine trial volunteers who have put their bodies on the line to make this medical progress possible. 

The filmmakers established rare access to researchers and developers behind several of the principal COVID-19 candidate vaccines, including three of the first to make it through human clinical trials and offer real hope for controlling the virus.  Among those to allow the documentary teams to film their work is the Pfizer/BioNTech candidate vaccine, the first to cross the ‘finish line’ with a candidate based upon novel mRNA technology.  The Pfizer candidate vaccine, stored at -70 degrees Celsius (-94 degrees Fahrenheit), is reported to be 95 percent effective at protecting people from COVID-19 in a massive clinical trial.  Also featured are top scientists from the U.S. NIH, who worked with Moderna to develop one of the vaccines supported by the U.S. government-led Operation Warp Speed initiative.  That vaccine candidate remains stable at -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit) for up to six months, at refrigerated conditions for up to 30 days, and at room temperature for up to 12 hours.  The film also follows the group from Oxford University, whose vector-borne approach is the basis for the low-cost AstraZeneca vaccine that can be stored and transported with relatively simple refrigeration storage, avoiding the need for a more complex cold supply chain.  And, the film also chronicles the work of the team from the University of Queensland in Australia, who have developed a novel protein subunit candidate vaccine.

“We’re proud to work with this talented team of storytellers to shine a light on the scientists behind one of the most important public health breakthroughs of our modern history,” said Head of HHMI Tangled Bank Studios, Carroll.  “We think it’s more important than ever for the public to understand the people and the process driving this herculean quest to save lives,” he said.


CNN Films has retained linear television rights throughout the United States and territories as well as Canada for RACE FOR THE VACCINE.  In the U.K., the film will broadcast as a Horizon Special, VACCINE: THE INSIDE STORY on BBC Two.  HHMI Tangled Bank Studios holds the educational rights.  GHRC and Wingspan Productions retain rights outside of the U.K. and North America. 

The deal announced today was negotiated by Kirstie McLure of The Televators, on behalf of Wingspan Productions and GHRC, and by Stacey Wolf, senior vice president of business affairs, and Kelly MacLanahan, assistant general counsel, both of CNN Worldwide, on behalf of CNN Films