Race for the Vaccine, a documentary produced to air on CNN and BBC, follows the stories of five teams of scientists as they embark on a search for a vaccine to combat COVID-19. The film is directed by filmmaker and former virologist Catherine Gale, co-directed by medical journalist and filmmaker Caleb Hellerman, and narrated and produced by CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
The film opens by introducing George Gao, Ph.D., director-general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Gao describes his experience researching the virus after it first appeared in China, and the steps that he and his team took to identify how the virus was different from the 2003 SARS virus. He also describes the moment he first shared the genetic code for COVID-19 with the world on January 8, 2020.
The film then explores how the following scientists and their teams spent the year that followed searching for a vaccine:
- Kizzmekia Corbett, Ph.D., and Barney S. Graham, M.D., Ph.D., of the U.S. National Institutes of Health/Moderna vaccine
- Keith Chappell, Ph.D., of the University of Queensland-Australia/CSL vaccine
- Kathrin Jansen, Ph.D., of Pfizer/BioNTech
- Teresa Lambe, Ph.D., of Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine
- George Gao, Ph.D., of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and more.
The film then examines the challenges and discoveries each organization made as scientists embarked on the following phases of vaccine development:
- Initial lab testing
- Phase I of human trials
- Phases II and III of human trials
- Deciding whether the vaccine is safe for the public
Before watching Race for the Vaccine, write or discuss your responses to the following questions:
- 1. What is the novel coronavirus (COVID-19)? How would you describe it to someone who had never heard of it?
- 2. What is a vaccine? Offer a definition.
- 3. What have you heard about vaccines and how they work … ?
- From the news
- From class
- From your community (friends and family)
- 4. Who makes vaccines?
- 5. How do you get a vaccine when you need one?
Race for the Vaccine examines the story of the COVID-19 vaccine, chronicling the many steps that scientists worldwide have taken for vaccines to reach the public. Make a prediction about the vaccine journey. Craft a quick flowchart to capture the sequence of events starting at the moment the virus was discovered and ending with the moment the vaccine became available to the public. What do you imagine happened in between to facilitate the vaccine’s development?
- Biotech company
- Spike protein
- Viral vector
- Viral immunologist
As you watch the full-length documentary (educators, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to receive a link to the documentary), use the following questions and graphic organizers to guide your analysis.
The answers to these comprehension questions are explored within the first ten minutes of the Race to the Vaccine.
- What is COVID-19, how does it work, and what does a vaccine do to prevent the virus from harming people?
- What was the first clue to identifying what was causing the COVID-19 pandemic?
- How long did it take to discover COVID-19? How did that compare to the time it took to discover the previous SARS-CoV virus?
- How does a person become infected with COVID-19? (Tip: Use the terms spike proteins and antibodies in your response.)
- According to Professor Lambe, how long does it usually take to create vaccines for novel viruses?
- How does a vaccine protect a person from a virus? What are antibodies, how are they produced, and how do they respond to a virus? (Consider: What does Professor Lambe mean when she describes antibodies as a “trained army?”)
After watching Race for the Vaccine (available at this link Monday, May 17, 2021), use the following questions and activities to extend your analysis and practice new skills.
- What details stood out to you from the film? What surprised you about the process of developing, testing, and sharing vaccines? What questions do you still have about the process?
- The film describes the nature of the virus in great detail. Why do viruses spread so quickly? Why are viruses so challenging to combat over time?
- Generally a vaccine program takes a decade to roll out, but global public health teams highlighted in the film developed a vaccine for COVID-19 in one year. What accounts for their rapid progress, and what has been the impact?
- Now that vaccines for COVID-19 have been developed, what are some of the new challenges we are facing in our global fight against the virus? How are scientists and other stakeholders navigating those challenges? And how are those challenges similar or different for different countries?
- How do scientists involved in developing the vaccine characterize the journey of vaccine creation? How does this characterization reflect on the nature of progress?
Option 1. Conduct Your Own Research on Vaccines
Refer back to your responses in the graphic organizer titled "Tracking the Stages of Vaccine Development." Identify one question that you had about a stage in the vaccine development process, and research your answer.
For support planning your research, review this resource shared by fall 2020 Pulitzer Center Teacher Fellow Chalya Pudlewski as part of her unit, “‘Reading’ the News: Media, Research, and Debate.” The resource was created by her colleagues at Cooperstown Junior/Senior High School in Cooperstown, New York.
Option 2. Visualize the Race for the Vaccine
Create a graphic, storyboard, or comic strip that visualizes the process that the teams highlighted in this film underwent to research, evaluate, and share a COVID-19 vaccine. As you develop your resource, consider how you could best communicate the process to a member of your community.
Option 3. Explore Careers in Immunology and Public Health
Kizzmekia Corbett, who led the research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that resulted in the Moderna vaccine, shares in the film how her experience exploring careers in science ultimately led her to her position at the NIH.
Identify a job described in the film that is interesting to you. Go online and research the position. What skills do you need? What are the educational requirements for the job? Would you have to relocate? What technology would you need to know? Using all this information, write a job description for this role.
Option 4. Explore Life Expectancy in Extra Life
Vaccination is one of many medical innovations that have led to a doubling of human life expectancy in the past century. In Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer from PBS, science writer Steven Johnson and historian David Olusoga introduce the impact of medical innovations and global collaboration on doubling human life expectancy. Click here to explore clips from the series and engage in a range of supporting activities.
For more underreported stories about the impacts of COVID-19, and other pressing public health stories, visit the Pulitzer Center’s Health Portal or COVID-19 Portal and make connections to the themes reviewed in the video in small group discussions.
Option 5. Tell Underreported Stories about COVID Heroes in Your Community
Race for the Vaccine highlights the stories of scientists, vaccine manufacturers, politicians, members of the public who volunteered for vaccine trials, and others whose contributions have saved lives. Who else has contributed to saving lives in your community as the world navigated the COVID-19 pandemic? Create a short video, audio, or print profile of a person in your community who has worked to combat the spread and impact of COVID-19. Then, record a note of gratitude to that person and share it with them.
Common Core Standards:
Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.
Next Generation Science Standards:
HS-ESS3-1 Earth and Human Activity
Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity.
HS-ESS3-4 Earth and Human Activity
Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems.
HS-LS2-8 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics
Evaluate evidence for the role of group behavior on individual and species’ chances to survive and reproduce.
Additional Resources for Educators:
Visualizing The Pandemic: An Exploration in Descriptive Statistics and Personal Stories
In this five-day unit plan written by Pulitzer Center Teacher Fellow Susan Zoë Greenwald, students will create a descriptive statistics data visualization to go with a chosen underreported story about the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. They will reflect on their graphic journalistically, mathematically, and personally.
Voices in the Shadow of Death: The Lost Narratives of the Bubonic Plague and COVID-19
In this three-lesson unit plan written by Pulitzer Center Teacher Fellow Adam Guerrero, students analyze reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic and historical research on the Black Death in order to evaluate the purposes and biases of sources, compare and contrast pandemics from two time periods, and evaluate whose stories are underreported. Students then create profiles that imagine underreported stories from the Black Death.
Evaluating ‘America's Medical Supply Crisis’
In this lesson plan, students explore a news story from PBS’ FRONTLINE, the Associated Press, and the Global Reporting Centre about the limited supplies of personal protective equipment in U.S. hospitals throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
Viewing Guide: Jon Cohen and the Race to a COVID-19 Vaccine
In this lesson plan, students discuss the road to a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and science journalist Jon Cohen's experience covering epidemics and infectious disease outbreaks.
Read news stories about COVID-19 in the COVID-19 Issue Portal
Read news stories about public health in the Health Issue Portal