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Horizon Special: The Vaccine

The extraordinary inside story of the biggest scientific challenge of our age – following a small band of vaccine scientists around the world who took on COVID-19 and ultimately delivered the weapon to beat it.   

As news of the coronavirus broke around the globe, a small group of scientists jumped into action to tackle one of the greatest medical challenges of our time: to create a vaccine against a virus no one had ever seen before, and to do so in record time, during a deadly, global pandemic.

This feature-length Horizon Special, shot on five continents, is the first documentary to be rooted in behind-the-scenes access during 2020 and 2021 to all the world’s front-running vaccine research teams. It tells the inspiring story of the unprecedented global quest to design vaccine candidates in days and weeks instead of years before putting them through rigorous trials to prove that they were safe and that they worked. From vaccine design challenges to the pitfalls of trial recruitment, the pressure of politics to the logistics of mass manufacturing, we follow a handful of key scientists, sharing their heart-breaking setbacks as well as exhilarating triumphs, in an emotional and uplifting insight into this extraordinary scientific endeavour.

  • In Washington DC: Barney Graham and Kizzmekia Corbett  - key scientists behind the NIH/Moderna vaccine
  • In Beijing: George Gao and Wu Guizhen – prime architects of the China CDC/ Sinopharm vaccine
  • In Oxford: Teresa Lambe and Katie Ewer –leading immunologists for the Oxford/ AstraZeneca vaccine
  • In Brisbane: Keith Chappell –architect of the University of Queensland vaccine
  • In Germany & USA: Ugur Sahin, Kathrin Jansen and Mike McDermott – pioneers of the Pfizer/ BioNTech vaccine

Dr George Gao, head of China’s Centre for Disease Control, first heard about the new virus on 30th December 2019 and, in releasing its genetic sequence days later, fired the starting gun for the race for vaccines around the world. The film follows his Chinese team as they pursue the most traditional vaccine method, growing vast quantities of the deadly virus to create their inactivated vaccine.  

But elsewhere, other teams use completely different ways of turning the virus into a vaccine.

We meet Oxford Professor Teresa Lambe, who designed the AstraZeneca viral vector vaccine over a weekend, and follow her progress alongside fellow immunologist Professor Katie Ewer, as they take their vaccine through the gruelling process of vaccine testing. It’s a first-hand insight into the sacrifices that must be made as they juggle their personal lives to work at speed in the unforgiving glare of the world’s media.

We follow the innovators who pioneered the novel mRNA approach – Dr Ugur Sahin from BioNTech; Dr Kathrin Jansen, the head of Pfizer’s vaccine R&D team; and Dr Barney Graham and Dr Kizzmekia Corbett, from America’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) whose vaccine design was manufactured by Moderna.

At Pfizer, we witness the scale of investment and infrastructure that ultimately enabled their vaccine to cross the finish line first. We’re behind-the-scenes at their vast manufacturing site in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where they tackle the complex logistics of being ready to roll out billions of vaccine doses long before anyone knew whether it would work.

With NIH/ Moderna, the film focuses on the working relationship between softly-spoken veteran virologist Dr Barney Graham and his 34 year-old protegee Dr Kizzmekia (Kizzy) Corbett, the NIH lead on coronavirus vaccines. “Ironically enough,” says Kizzy, “I was interested in coronaviruses because most other people were not. You want to build a niche and to tap into some unchartered territory.” Within weeks Kizzy is explaining how their vaccine works to President Trump, and increasingly speaking out to tackle vaccine hesitancy as Moderna finds itself struggling to recruit enough people of colour in their clinical trials.

At the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, Professor Keith Chappell is candid about his hopes to “save the world”, with his innovative protein vaccine which can be cheaply and easily manufactured, and so will be potentially vital for reaching developing countries. But after the excitement of promising early trials, we watch the vaccine encounter a dramatic setback. It’s a stark reminder of the uncertainties of science, and how for most of 2020, there was never any guarantee that any of the new vaccines in development would work.

As you’d expect from Horizon, there’s depth of explanation into the science behind the different vaccine designs, and the rigorous testing process. Viewers also get a sense of the experience of the clinical trial volunteers, who literally put their bodies on the line for the benefit of humanity. But what really shines through is the human story of the scientists who carried the hopes of the world on their shoulders, and triumphed.