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Greg Zuckerman Looks at Race to Create a COVID-19 Vaccine

Highlighting: “A Shot to Save the World” by Gregory Zuckerman. Portfolio. 2021. English. Hardcover. 384 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0593420393.

Amid the devastation wrought by COVID-19, there is a story so powerful, so stunning, so inspiring, that it defies imagination—almost.

Gregory Zuckerman’s “A Shot to Save the World: The Inside Story of the Life-or-Death Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine,” chronicles the desperate race to find a vaccine in real time.

“This is a story of courage, determination, and death-defying ingenuity. It’s also a tale of heated competition, crippling insecurities, and unbridled ambitions…Most of all, the COVID-19 vaccine story is one of heroism, dedication, and remarkable persistence…

“This is the story of what went right,” he writes.

The author of three bestsellers who regularly appears on CNBC, Fox Business and other networks, he is a special writer and investigative reporter at the Wall Street Journal, where he writes about business, economic and investing topics. Zuckerman lives in West Orange, where he and his family are members of Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David (AABJ&D).

So how did a business writer become the author of a book that chronicles, according to Zuckerman, “how science protected humanity from a modern-day plague.”

His personal story begins in late January 2020, when he and his two sons flew to London after a family visit to Israel.

“There had been some articles [in the media] about a virus in Wuhan, a little bit of nervousness in the world, but not too much,” he recalls. His sons, however, were extra cautious, and wore makeshift masks while flying and in Heathrow. “I took mine off in the airport. People were staring. And there were articles not to wear a mask, it’s a waste of time.”

Just weeks later, the world was in lockdown. Zuckerman retreated to his basement office in his West Orange home, where he began to track the development of a vaccine. He knew it was a story he had to write.

Even though “A Shot to Save the World” is very different from what he has done in the past, he notes there are similarities. “I write about difficult topics—complex financial concepts, fracturing, algorithms—and now I’m writing about biology and science. The way to make it appealing is to focus on the characters. I try to get people to tell me things that they shouldn’t always tell me.

“All of my books and a lot of my writing at WSJ is about characters and quirky individuals, unsung and unexpected heroes who achieve something monumental or historic when the experts say it’s not possible,” he continued. “It’s always the way into a story. It sets a tone—sends a message this will be a fun read.”

In the book, his “cast of characters” includes scientists, academics, executives, government officials, investors and others who laid the groundwork for the successful creation of a COVID-19 vaccine. These women and men come alive in the tradition of a bestselling thriller.

When he began writing the book in spring 2020, most of the world believed a vaccine was years away. While at that time he knew little about the science of vaccine development (he credits a local PhD student as his tutor), he was aware of something most of the world didn’t know: Substantial headway had already been made in the field of vaccine research. In July 2020, he co-wrote a full-page article in the WSJ about the progress made to date in the development of a mRNA-based vaccine by an upstart Cambridge, Massachusetts, company few had heard of called Moderna. “Most were unaware, but Tony Fauci and others understood how much progress Moderna and others had made,” he said.

Even so, the world was in uncharted territory. He knew the ultimate development of revolutionary vaccines that could stem the spread of a worldwide pandemic couldn’t be created without revolutionary work leading up to it. There had to be important breakthroughs that hadn’t been written about in the past. His goal was to unearth the key breakthroughs and shine a light onto who was responsible for them.

Zuckerman divides the more than 300 people he interviewed into three categories. The first were those who wanted to talk. “When it comes to something so historic and important people are often eager to chat,” he says. The second were people so caught up in their work that the interview allowed them to reflect on what they and the colleagues were doing. Then there were those who didn’t want to talk at all.

Regardless, said Zuckerman, “my job was to persuade them they needed to talk, that there needed to be a historic record of one of science’s greatest achievements and that I needed to get it right. And, it reassured me in a lot of ways. I was speaking to such dedicated researchers who had dedicated their lives to these new approaches. I gained an appreciation for their absolute dedication to science and these breakthroughs.”

He also developed a deeper appreciation of the West Orange Jewish community, which provided him with encouragement during the writing process, and his religion, which gave Zuckerman comfort and hope as the pandemic raged. “Spending time with the Lakeview Drive and Swayze Street minyanim, playing softball with my shul team on Sundays and chatting with Rabbi Zwickler and local friends were highlights of a difficult year,” he said.

“I, like everybody else, was dealing with a sad and scary time. But I was involved in this project—the most difficult one of my life—and more than ever I appreciated our community. I appreciated Shabbat more than ever as a time of reflection, peace and calm.

“In many ways,” he continued, “our local Jewish community and my faith were of comfort to me and gave me solace and a source of optimism. Judaism is all about persevering in both good and difficult times and having confidence there will be better times ahead. I felt better equipped with my faith and my community.”

And perhaps it’s bashert; in August, Zuckerman finished writing the book where his journey began, in Israel. It was the first time he had seen his mother and sister since COVID began.

In the Afterward, Zuckerman muses about the tension between defending liberty and freedom while cherishing free will, which he describes as a hallmark of many Western countries, especially the U.S. and United Kingdom. He turned to a man, who even after his death inspires him and Jews around the world, for the book’s final words.

“I think future anthropologists will take a look at the books we read on self-help, self-realization, self-esteem,” said Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l. “They’ll look at the way we talk about morality as being true to oneself, the way we talk about politics as a matter of individual rights. And I think they’ll conclude that what we worship in our times is the self, the ‘Me,’ the ‘I.’ The antidote to this? A reassertion of the ‘We.’”

Zuckerman will be speaking about his new book at Congregation Ohr Torah in West Orange this Motzei Shabbat, November 13, at 8 p.m. He will speak again on Monday, November 22, at 6:30 p.m. at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston.

“A Shot to Save the World” is available on Amazon, Barnes & Nobles in Livingston and other local bookstores.

By Sherry S. Kirschenbaum

 

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