How to survive a pandemic is a documentary about the development and distribution of the first tranche of COVID-19 vaccines. The climactic scene is the zoom call from Nov 8, 2020, in which Pfizer chief Albert Bourla hears the interim results for the phase 3 trial of the company’s mRNA vaccine. No major safety issues and over 90% efficacy. “We strongly suggest that you submit to the FDA [US Food and Drug Administration] as soon as possible”, advises the researcher who delivers the astonishing news. Similar results follow for the Moderna vaccine. By mid-December, the trucks were rolling out of the Pfizer depot in Kalamazoo (MI, USA). The USA was poised to begin the biggest vaccination drive in its history. The prospects for 2021 were promising. So ends part 1 of How to survive a pandemic. But the story is far from over. Part 2 is a sobering exposition of how the initial vaccine rollout excluded vast swathes of world. Director David France and science journalist Jon Cohen, on whom the documentary centres, spent several years reporting on the HIV/AIDS crisis. They witnessed the uneven roll-out of antiretroviral therapy. The parallels with the COVID-19 pandemic are disturbing.
Cohen’s incisive and sometimes combative interviews with leading figures in the COVID-19 response are a highlight of the film. “You have a history of asking me about things that I don’t have control over; you’ve been asking me these questions for decades”, laughs Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The warmth of the exchange stands in contrast to the footage of rallies in which we see t-shirts, caps, and placards cursing Fauci. The director’s flair for detail is much in evidence. The FDA’s Peter Marks, working out of his basement, perches his laptop on cans of oatmeal. He wrings his hands nervously when discussing Donald Trump. Fears that the then-administration would ride roughshod over the approval process for new medical products were widely shared. In the event, this did not come to pass. But concerns over equity turned out to be well-founded. The
documentary concludes with an on-screen inscription: “if global distribution had been truly equitable in the first full
year of vaccine availability, experts estimate, an additional one million lives might have been saved”. Viewed from this perspective, How to survive a pandemic is as much a story of failure as it is of success.