A Shot to Save The World — Gregory Zuckerman
A Shot to Save The World — Gregory Zuckerman
A group of unlikely researchers saved millions of lives when they developed the COVID-19 vaccine. But their stories were lost in the shuffle … until now. Award-winning journalist Gregory Zuckerman shares their full journey in his latest book. And in this episode, he discusses the science behind the vaccines, the companies that raced to develop them and the future of the virus with host Charles Mizrahi.
- An Introduction to Gregory Zuckerman (00:00:00)
- The Innovative Disruptor (00:06:47)
- Re-writing the Script (00:11:21)
- Unlikely Characters Save the Day (00:17:16)
- Moderna Rises to the Challenge (00:28:54)
- Skeptics & Politics (00:35:28)
- A Sea Change in Development (00:44:05)
- The Future of COVID-19 (00:50:14)
Gregory Zuckerman is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author. In addition to being a special writer for The Wall Street Journal and three-time winner of the Gerald Loeb Award, Zuckerman has written several books that span business and science. His latest book (below) describes the race to develop a vaccine that would save the world.
- A Shot to Save the World: The Inside Story of the Life-or-Death Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine
- The Greatest Trade Ever: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of How John Paulson Defied Wall Street and Made Financial History
- The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters
- The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simmons Launched the Quant Revolution
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GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Vaccines are not a sexy business. Today, Moderna is a $122 billion company. It’s sitting on piles of cash. The CEO and others are billionaires. But roll it back to the beginning of 2020. People told Moderna not to go into vaccines.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: My guest today is Gregory Zuckerman. Greg is a special writer with The Wall Street Journal and three-time winner of the Gerald Loeb Award — the highest honor in business journalism.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: He’s the author of The Greatest Trade Ever: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of How John Paulson Defied Wall Street and Made Financial History, The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters and The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simmons Launched the Quant Revolution. All have gone on to become either Wall Street Journal and or New York Times bestsellers. His latest book, A Shot to Save the World: The Inside Story of the Life-or-Death Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine, was recently released and is climbing the charts.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I recently sat down with Greg, and we talked about how the COVID-19 vaccines were discovered — and what went right in the race to find them.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Greg, I’m really excited for you to be on the show, and I want to thank you. I’ve been a big fan since I read your book The Greatest Trade Ever about John Paulson. And I’ve read all of your other books. The Frackers was a great book about wildcatting.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I should take that back. I didn’t read your book on Jim Simmons — but I have to. It’s called The Man Who Solved the Market. But I did read your latest book, A Shot to Save the World: The Inside Story of the Life-or-Death Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine. Outstanding.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Thank you so much. It was eye-opening for me and fascinating. These characters — the scientists — have effectively saved the world. And their stories hadn’t been told, so I wanted to do it.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You know what I like about your writing? I like authors who write sentences that don’t have 15 commas in them — where you have to keep remembering things. I like short, punchy text — where it keeps moving along, and one story doesn’t get too boring. And I’m sure you did this on purpose.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Once a story developed one character — you have a lot of characters in the story. I wish I had the Kindle version because I could just look — X-ray — and see all the characters. But there were a lot of people involved. And when you dove knee-deep into a story, you moved on to another one. So, you kept the reader moving. But that’s what you do, and that’s why your books are bestsellers.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: I have an approach — a thesis — that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” I tackle complex, challenging topics. My first book — The Greatest Trade Ever — is about mortgages, credit default swaps and CDOs. My next one, The Frackers, was about fracking and their revolution in this in this country. The last one is about algorithms, AI and machine learning. And this one is about messenger RNA (mRNA) and different approaches to vaccines.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: What I try to do is build those stories around interesting or fascinating characters. I think we can all relate to and learn from them. I’m somewhat selfish in that regard. I like to learn from these characters myself. They’re also interesting, and they accomplish things that change the world. So, I try to tell it through the eyes of these characters.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, you know your first book is on John Paulson. I love that book. I guess it’s because I’m in the financial industry. So, to me, you didn’t have to explain much. I think I read that in one sitting. It was so fascinating because I lived it and watched it play out. It was really great stuff.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: This is your first book that’s about science, right? The other one is about oil. Fracking — you talk about how it up-ended the oil market. And The Man Who Solved the Market is about a brilliant guy who created a team that achieved 66% annualized returns — which you can’t even wrap your head around. And this book is about science.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Yeah, that’s a good point. My new book, A Shot to Save the World, is a bit outside my usual [subjects] — finance, business and entrepreneurship. But there’s a common theme in all of my stories. And that’s about unlikely individuals — entrepreneurs, scientists or others — who accomplish something big that the experts tell them they can’t do. I’m partial to that theme. You almost root for some of these characters because they’re told by society that they can’t pull it off.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: So, when it comes to messenger RNA and the approach that has led to the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines — it’s saved millions of lives. For years, there were scientists who were being told: “Don’t waste your time.” And that’s a theme that I’m partial to and drawn toward in all my writings.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: With John Paulson, there were people saying: “Well, I’m worried about housing. I’m worried about the mortgage market. I’m worried about a collapse.” And they were told by the experts: “Don’t worry.” And with fracking, people were told: “Give up on America. Don’t think about drilling in Texas, Oklahoma and North Dakota. These very stubborn, interesting personalities ignored the experts. And I’m really drawn to that theme. And again, with A Shot to Save the World — my new book — it’s about scientists who ignored conventional wisdom. So, there is a common thread there — even though science is a little different for me.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, there must have been a big learning curve. You had to learn a lot about vaccines. Let’s get right into it, man. I don’t want to talk about you anymore. I want to talk about your book. I learned so many things. And I want to start off with this: We take vaccines for granted. And I’m not talking about COVID-19. Put that all aside. Measles, mumps, chicken pox, smallpox — all of those vaccines. This is literally science fiction. And when it comes down to it, these things take years to develop.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, I want you to walk us back. How long does the average vaccine take to develop? What is a vaccine? What is it trying to do? And how was this COVID-19 vaccine an innovative disruptor?
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Sure. Historically, vaccines take years to produce. Before the COVID-19 vaccine, the fastest vaccine produced took four years. And on average, it takes about 10 years. That’s one more reason to appreciate what’s been accomplished in the past year. And frankly, it’s also a reason why people are nervous about these current vaccines.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: “Greg, if it takes 10 years on average — and four years is the fastest — why should I trust these new vaccines that have been produced so quickly?” What I try to accomplish in my book is show that it actually took decades of hard, persistent work by resilient scientists to accomplish what we did over the past year.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: And to your question, vaccines try to teach the immune system to ward off a pathogen — some illness or disease that we might encounter in the future. Historically, how we did it was by injecting a piece of a virus. We did that with polio. Or we attenuate or weaken it. We either kill or weaken it.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Hang on a second. So, we take a virus. We weaken, soften and punch the crap out of it until it’s not potent. We inject it into a human being. Our body’s defenses kick in and fight it. So, when the actual virus does come, it has troops out there, and it knows how to defend. In layman’s terms, is that what a vaccine is?
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Yes. We’re teaching the immune system — which you can think of as a series of different defenders that we have inside of us. The human body is remarkable. The more I research this — it’s remarkable what the human body can do. When we think about things like cancer, we focus on all the sad experiences. My late father passed away from cancer. But for every one of those, are many more where the body was fought it off. It’s the immune system — which is a remarkable creation.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: The immune system needs to be taught. And historically, that’s what we do with a piece of a protein or a killed or weakened version of an existing illness, virus, pathogen or disease. We send it in through a vaccine with an injection. And we basically educate the immune system. Here’s a dry run. You’ve experienced this disease through the vaccine. It’s only a dry run. It’s not the real thing.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: By doing that, we have taught the immune system to be on guard for the real thing — if it’s ever experienced in the future. We may not experience it. But if the body experiences it in the future, the immune system says: “Aha! I remember. We were taught this. I look out for a little piece of that virus.” And with COVID 19, the piece that we’re teaching the body to create — through mRNA — is the spike protein. We’ve all heard about the spike protein…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Hang on to that for one second.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: I’m going a little fast.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, I didn’t graduate too high in my class in high school, so you have to go slow for me.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: For years, the quickest-developed vaccine was mumps — in four years.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Yeah.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, the average vaccine takes 10 years.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Yes.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: In my parent’s and great grandparent’s time — and yours as well — polio was a killer. Smallpox was killing people. We live in a miraculous time. The cemeteries are not filled with little children. And thank God for that. Thank God for scientists who figured this out and persevered in the face of failure.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Now, we’re faced with a new challenge. And that challenge is COVID-19 — which pops up on the scene. In your book, it’s really exciting. I don’t know if “exciting” is the right word. It’s suspenseful. A guy from Moderna looks up from his ancient iPad and says: “Oh my gosh. There are problems in Wuhan.” And you see them.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: That’s something that we can all relate to. I remember hearing about this. I went on a plane in January 2020, and there were a few people who were wearing masks and wiping down their seats. I remember texting my friend. I said: “Did I miss the memo? What the heck is going on here?” And he said: “It’s bunch of crazies.” So, I asked: “What’s up?” And he said: “There’s something in China. Don’t even sweat it.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: That was it. And in a matter of weeks, it went from something in China to shutting down the economy and staying at home. What the heck is going on?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: At that point, we had no defense against COVID-19, correct?
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Yes.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I’m in New York. And I remember that bodies were piling up in Queens. They couldn’t fit them into the morgue at Queens Hospital. I think it was Jamaica Hospital. It was scary. My mother had a friend who called up on Monday. He was concerned about his wife — who was sick. Two days later, he died of COVID-19. My first attorney ever was in the hospital for something. This was in early March. He died of COVID-19. What was going on?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: At that time, we don’t even know what’s going on. And the book talks all about it. At the time, there’s a group of scientists who are spot on because they’ve seen this game before and have years of experience in dealing with viruses. Take us from there.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Sure. So, there was a group of researchers. Some of them were working for the government, but more of them were working for private industry. They had been doing research on various approaches — including messenger RNA. Messenger RNA is a molecule, and we all have them in our body. And the idea is that it brings a message. It’s called “messenger RNA” for a reason. It brings a message — instructions — to the body’s cell. It tells the body’s cells to do something — like create proteins that keep us alive.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: And these scientists said: “Hold on a second. If our bodies rely on messenger RNA molecules to provide instructions to our bodies, what if we created messenger RNA molecules in the lab, put them in a vaccine and injected them into the body?” And basically, we can make the body into its own drug manufacturing facility. In other words: We create ourselves — our bodies. We rely on our immune systems — which are phenomenal, remarkable creations. And our body’s immune system creates the protein — or whatever it is — to ward off disease.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, instead of bringing in an outside agent — that piece of virus — and telling the body, “I want you to kick-start things from here,” what we’re really doing is teaching our bodies to fight this by rewriting the script. Is that it?
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: It is an outside agent in that mRNA is created in the lab, and it’s something that we inject into ourselves. But it’s not as dangerous as injecting a piece of the actual virus. In my book, I write a lot about the search for an HIV vaccine. It’s still ongoing. For obvious reasons, it’s too dangerous to inject a piece of HIV into the body. And there are other pathogens — which I’m also a little nervous about.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: We could have done that with COVID-19, too. But we didn’t need to because there was research being done below the radar screen and away from the limelight by companies like the Moderna — which few people had heard of going into 2020. And those who had heard of Moderna were skeptical about the company.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: As I write in my book, the leader of the company — Stephane Bancel — was a Frenchman and businessman. He wasn’t a scientist. People thought he was overdoing it or exaggerating. Some people compared him to Elizabeth Holmes — who’s now on trial for fraud. People didn’t believe him. He was saying: “We are making progress on these messenger RNA molecules in our lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts.” People scoffed at, made fun of and mocked him.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And they not only scoffed at him, but his investors also told him: “Don’t even go into this because it’s not going to be productive. You’re going to be pissing money down a hole.”
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Right. And others as well. I read about this company — BioNTech — in Germany. It was making progress below the radar screen, too. And by the beginning of 2020, people were skeptical about both companies. And yet, they stepped up. Getting back to your point, there was all this research being done on a new approach — using mRNA molecules to create vaccines. But nothing had been proven. People were skeptical. There were all kinds of doubts. And yet, they pulled it off.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: In January 2020, you and I were looking at this virus. And I also remember going through an airport in London and thinking about whether or not to put a mask on. I was with my two sons. They were coming in from Israel. They wore masks because they were little worried and nervous. In some ways, the next generation can sometimes be more hesitant in this government. I looked around, and people were giving me odd looks. I was a little embarrassed. I took my mask off. Back then, Fauci and people were saying: “Don’t wear a mask.” It was conventional wisdom at the time.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: They said that wearing the mask was worse.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Yes. Exactly. I remember telling my boys: “They say that you’re tugging and pulling on the mask, and it’s going to make it worse.” That’s what science is. You learn along the way. That’s what scientists do. That’s the scientific process. So, while we were all skeptical, there were so many warnings over the years. Oh yeah, right. There’s going to be a new illness, pathogen or disease in China. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s not going to affect me.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: These guys in Boston, Germany, Oxford University and places around the world were convinced that a pandemic was on the way. And they were convinced that they had an approach to save the day.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: What I find really fascinating is that it shouldn’t have been these characters. It shouldn’t have been these companies — BioNTech, Moderna, Oxford University and all the people that I write about in my book. It should have been Merck. It should have been GSK. It should have been Sanofi. They are the vaccine giants. Merck created the MMR vaccine — the one that we give to all of our kids for the measles, mumps and rubella. And yet, they let us down. And it had to be these unlikely characters…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I learned so much about Merck from that famous immunologist — Hillman. I believe his name is Maurice Hillman. This guy was the god of vaccines. Tell me what this guy came out with.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: MMR. He created more vaccines than anybody. And he wasn’t somebody who got much publicity. But in the vaccine world, he’s a god.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: They should make a statue for this guy. This guy is absolutely amazing. You never hear about him.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: I put both of them in. They’re fascinating, cantankerous and difficult individuals. As you read about in the book, he’s a hard person to deal with. He sits you across the room and says: “What’s your religion?” And you don’t know what to answer. He’s testing you all the time. Anyway, I’m sorry.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: No, no. That’s great. You just added color to that. You would think that they would be the Mercks of this world — which have the R&D and culture of solving big problems. And it was a bunch of rascals. It was almost like your book about the wildcatters and fracking. They go ahead and turn everything on its ear.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: There had to be those kinds of characters. I’m not from that world, so a lot of it is just me learning. And sometimes, it’s better to not be from the world of science.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Vaccines are not a sexy business. Today, Moderna is a $122 billion company. It’s sitting on piles of cash. The CEO — and others — is a billionaire. But roll it back to the beginning of 2020. People told Moderna not to go into vaccines.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: You don’t make much money. If you think about it like a stat — or another kind of drug — you have to give it frequently. [It’s] over and over again and on a regular basis. If you’re a producer or a drug company, you make tons of money that way. If you’re a vaccine company, you give it out once a year — like flu vaccine or something. And how much can you charge? You get pressure from Third World countries. You should be charging much less.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: No one really wants to go into vaccines if you can avoid it. And for years — as you’ll read in my book — Moderna didn’t want to be in vaccines. Originally, the company was called Moderna Therapeutics. Therapeutics are not vaccines. It was trying to get into drugs because that’s where the money was. But it struck out in therapeutics, and it had to resort to vaccines. That’s the only way the company was making any progress.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: So, companies like Merck slow-footed it. They weren’t into coming up with a vaccine for COVID-19. Yeah, they’d get some fanfare and respect from others. But they’d make so much more money in cancer and other kinds of areas. It had to be the BioNTechs, Modernas and Novavaxs that I write about in my book. They were overlooked, weren’t making much money and didn’t have prospects elsewhere. So, we were saved by unlikely characters and scientists.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And they were going door to door to raise money for the labs and everything. They had no money to do it. I’m not naive. I’m from New York. So, you can take that for what it is. I don’t get fooled easily. But it wasn’t a business proposition for these three companies that you followed. It became a religion. It became a cause. It became a mission. Because to look stupid time and again — it seemed like these guys were on a mission to save humanity. Am I wrong about that or not?
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Yeah, I have respect for the scientists working at some of these companies. And I’ve gained a lot of respect. We, on the outside, are always a bit skeptical. I’ve always been skeptical of Big Pharma — drug companies that are out to make a lot of money. And I don’t want to suggest that they’re not. That’s part of the motivation. But there are researchers within the companies. I write about Novavax. It produced a COVID-19 vaccine. It hasn’t been approved yet, but it looks like it could be better than any other.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: And over a decade, they made slow progress. They shared rants and frustrations. They had disappointments. These researchers could have gone elsewhere. They were well-respected and had a lot of talent. They could have gone to the Mercks of the world. And yet, they kept working at it because, like you said, they became a little obsessive. And they became convinced that they could help and save lives.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: And again, there are other motivations, too. I’m a big capitalist, and I think making a lot of money is part of the incentive — as it is becoming famous and getting the respect of your peers. But saving lives is a huge part of the calculus for these researchers. And I’ve come to respect that motivation that drives most of them.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: When did President Trump have all of them over to the White House?
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: It was March 2020.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: If you recall, every night — around six o’clock — President Trump gave an update about what was going on. And it was broadcast on all the major media outlets. It was really depressing. All around you, you saw people getting really sick or dying. At the time, one or two died really quickly. But people were getting sick. And they didn’t know what to do with them. They put a friend of mine — a 50-year-old guy — on a ventilator for 13 weeks. They moved to Cleveland, and he died. He left a lot of kids. It was tragic.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Now that we have a vaccine and people have stopped dying at such a quick rate, it’s like: “Oh yeah.” It’s like when you get off of a rollercoaster. “That wasn’t so bad.” Well, it was bad. It was really bad. We didn’t know when we were going to go out again. Forget about where the pendulum swung. Let’s put all that aside. People were dying. Hospitals were filled to the brim. They couldn’t accept people. And there was no daylight.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, in March, they mentioned that the President was meeting all the heads of the pharmaceutical companies. Knowing Trump from New York — and knowing people who knew him very well — I felt good after hearing about that meeting. I really did. Because if anyone could corral these people — motivate them, move them, talk plain to them and say, “Get off of your ass and get something done” — it was him.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And you described that meeting in the book. It was originally going to be in the Oval Office, but they had to move to a conference room because there were so many of them. It was all crammed. Walk us through that. To me, it resonated because that was the turning point. I think that’s when we were marshaling all our forces together. You had the government and private sector coming together and saying: “We’re going to beat this.”
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: It’s funny you see that as a turning point. That meeting was a turning point for Pfizer. Pfizer participated in that meeting. And as you said, President Trump called a meeting for the top drug executives in the country. There were one or two [people] from each company. And Pfizer sent one or two people. They all marched in there, went through security, got to the Oval Office and realized there were too many of them. So, they used another conference room — which was still pretty cramped. People weren’t going to be able to see.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: President Trump went around the room asking: “Where are you? How long do you think it’ll take?” And he encouraged people to go faster rather than slower. What was interesting — and I write about it in the book — was that one of the top guys at Pfizer participated in the meeting. He gave the update. The company was working on drugs and looking into vaccines. But he came away from the meeting and said: “Wait, hold on a second. This is serious stuff and changing the world.”
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: It’s funny. You can be so close to it. A company like Pfizer was working on so many different things at one time. And it wasn’t focused on COVID-19 until that meeting. I wrote about how the executives flew back, and he said: “Wow. We need to focus. We need to get going. We need to accelerate our research.” And then, they made an alliance with BioNTech in Germany. It wasn’t at the meeting. And the rest is history. They created a remarkable vaccine.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: So, I think President Trump — and his administration — should get a lot of credit. They deserve a lot of criticism for not being sufficiently focused on the COVID-19 virus before the vaccines were developed. And the rollout was disappointing in a lot of ways. But Operation Warp Speed is historically important and remarkable. He talked to Moderna. He talked to these other companies. Operation Warp Speed played a huge role in getting these vaccines done as remarkably fast as they were.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: You have to take a step back. And I think you alluded to this earlier. These vaccines are among the most important accomplishments of modern science. I think all of us — Republicans, Democrats and everybody — should be embracing them and proud of the scientists who are responsible for this accomplishment that has quickly saved so many lives.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: And frankly, I can’t wait to see what they accomplish next. I tried to make my story a positive one — believe it or not. It’s about COVID-19. Millions have died, and it’s a sad story in so many ways. There are so many stories written about what went wrong. Mine is about what went right. And I’ve come to appreciate what they’ve accomplished.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. I want to get back to that conference room. As they’re going around the room, I think it was Moderna that said: “We can get it done in less than a year.” As you wrote, the experts said that it would take 18 months or two to four years — minimum! Moderna said it would take one year, and Fauci stepped in to temper expectations and said…?
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: He said: “Well, I don’t think so. I’m not sure. I don’t think so. Let’s slow down. Let’s not get overexcited.” And I get it. You don’t want to get people over-enthusiastic and raise expectations. But as you said, both President Trump and Moderna had high expectations. There’s something to be said for raising the bar and having a goal. And I have to tell you: The scientists and executives of Pfizer, Moderna and other companies worked so hard. Many of them have become unbelievably wealthy, and the stocks have shot up. But we also have to give them credit and appreciate that they worked 24/7…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Put all their work to the side for a second. I’m not minimizing that at all. But as viable businesses, to pay the rent — they were broke. They had no money. They were going to investors, and investors were turning them down. They were working on something to save humans throughout the world — not thousands but millions. They were zealots. They were saying: “No, this is a mission.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You put the reader in that seat of going door to door and trying to raise money. And they really were. They were going — hat-in-hand — to raise money and keep the labs open. They knew what it was going to cost to make these things. And they were getting turned down. To get up the next morning and reach out to try to get more money — I think the average human would have stopped.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: I agree. And it’s even more remarkable because Stephane Bancel — the CEO of Moderna — made his reputation as a fund-raiser. For years, he was able to hook money from investors. And people were jealous in the biotech world. “Why is he able to raise so much money? He must be exaggerating. There’s no way they can raise this much money.” He’s a salesman, but he’s also very persuasive. So, for his whole life, he’s able to raise money.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: And yet, when the chips were down — when they needed money to develop the vaccine — he could not raise money from investors, public bodies, foundations, endowments or charities. As you said, he went door to door and went back to people who rejected him. They closed the door in his face.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: They kept telling him: “Stop going on this path. Get back to your business. This is not going to make you money.”
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Yeah. His own investors didn’t want him to do this. He was risking his reputation — and his company’s reputation. And yet, they persisted. So, I give them all kinds of respect. And frankly, I don’t think enough had been appreciated, so Wall Street stepped up to save the day. Operation Warp Speed was really important. The money from all kinds of endowments and charities were important. But that money came a bit later.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: There was a key equity deal — a stock deal — done in May 2020 by Morgan Stanley. The company wrote a check to Moderna for $1.2 billion. Moderna was desperate for that. The company was running out of money. It had no money to produce these vaccines. It had already created the vaccine. It looked effective. It looked like it was going to save people. But they had no money to buy the vials, containers and syringes and manufacture it properly.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: It took a deal with investors on Wall Street to give them that money. And then, Moderna said to its head of production: “Go spend this money, and go produce it!” The rest is history. So, a lot of really important roles were played by unsung, unappreciated characters — even people on Wall Street.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It’s the terrible capitalist system, huh?
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Yeah, right.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You write that the COVID-19 vaccines have helped prevent more than 279,000 deaths and averted over 1.25 million additional hospitalizations. And that number is probably old by now.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: That’s a month old, and that’s not my data. That’s according to data produced by Yale University.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right. Once again, it’s like when you finish a roller coaster ride. You say: “It wasn’t so bad.” But folks, if you remember, hospitals had no room. We had a ship docked in the Hudson. An aircraft carrier…
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: The Nimitz?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: No, not the Nimitz. It was a hospital ship. We didn’t have room. And the Javits Center was going to be used because we didn’t know what was going on. So, to think it was a farce, our immune system or herd immunity…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Unfortunately — with all due respect to these people talking — they don’t know their asses from their elbows when it comes to what was really happening. We like to look back in hindsight and say: “Oh, it wasn’t so bad.” This was terrible!
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Charles, you made a point earlier, and it’s a great one. Even scientists — the experts — were saying: “Maybe we can come up with a vaccine. Maybe in a few years. It’s clear that we can get one. Maybe it’ll be 50% or 60% effective — like the flu vaccine.” They’re not foolproof vaccines, and they’re not perfect. But they’re as close to that as we can hope for. And we need to be grateful and appreciative. I agree.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Greg, you’re a smart guy. You’ve researched this. You spoke to a lot of people face-to-face in your interviews, right? You interviewed close to 200 or 300 people or so, right?
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: It was 300 or more.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK. You’re a seasoned journalist. You’re an investigative journalist. You look into people’s eyes. You hear how they talk. You can pick out the crap from reality in a heartbeat. The way you write them … these people were driven. They were on a mission. It wasn’t only about the money. In a sense, the money was secondary. They wanted to get this done.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Here’s my question: Knowing all of this — and the science behind it — why are people anti-vaxxers? Why are people saying: “I have to do my own research,” “Don’t trust the government numbers” or “Don’t trust the pharmaceuticals.” What is going on here?
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: So, I’ll give you two answers. One is that, sadly, everything in our society is politicized. For my earlier book, The Frackers, I drove across the country — to places like Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota and parts of Pennsylvania.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: I’m an east-coast guy. I live on the east coast in New Jersey. My wife is from L.A. We all have all these images of other people who are not like ourselves. And then, when you get to meet them, you realize how much we all have in common. There are good people everywhere — both on the east coast and in middle America. Everywhere! We’re all Americans, and we believe in similar things. You may not always realize it, think it and believe it, but we do.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: And yet, for whatever reason, everything is politicized. Today, everything is black or white. You are pro-energy, so you hate fracking. Or, you’re like: “Drill baby, drill.” There’s nothing in the middle. You have to take sides for some reason. It’s tribal. It’s my side against your side or my team against your team. I’m a Democrat, and I hate Republicans — or vice versa. It’s in everything that comes up — whether it’s abortion or energy drilling. There are no nuances anymore. There’s no taking a step back and thinking: “These vaccines are not perfect.” Originally, they were 95% effective. They’re less so now. There are side effects.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: There are always risks with anything. I drive my car, and there’s a risk. If I step on a nail, I get a tetanus shot. I don’t look into it to see what the history of it is. I realize that it’s probably not a perfect vaccine, but I need it.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Sadly, everything is now a fight in our country. It’s a sad reflection of where we are as a people. We need to spend more time getting to know each other. I went to breakfast years ago. It was about politics, and I think Michael Bloomberg was talking. He said one of the issues in Washington today is that transportation — specifically, air transportation — has improved. Congressmen and congresswomen all go home on weekends to see their constituents.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: It used to be that they all hung around Washington and got to know each other. Republicans and Democrats would have coffee, drinks and meals with each other. And they realized that the other side is not evil. We don’t have those interactions like we used to. And I find it so sad.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Again, I loved traveling the country and going to little towns in Oklahoma. I keep kosher, and they were appreciative of that. And I was a little wary. I said: “I’m sorry. I can’t eat with you. I’ll have a salad or soda, but I can’t have a burger or steak with you.” And they were fine with that! I was a little nervous. So, there’s just not enough of that interaction. And that’s with every subject — vaccines or others. You’re either for it or against it. I hate it, or I love it.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: And the thing I was going to say is that it’s a do-it-yourself kind of world that we’re in. People are skeptical of authority figures — be it scientists or doctors. Your own internist has treated you for years. And yet, when he suggests that you should get a vaccine, [some say]: “Well, what does he know? I’m going to go on YouTube and find my own expert.”
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: I’m not a big believer in experts all of the time. But there’s a reason that people have spent years in medical school — perfecting the craft. We should acknowledge the effort that they put into it. They’re trying to help. They’re not trying to hurt. So, I think we should be a little more modest in our own beliefs and understandings of the world and defer to these experts sometimes.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You bring up a really great point. And I’ve been saying this for the last year or so. Anger drives out reason. When you get angry, you become a closed off. You don’t think clearly. And there are a whole bunch of biological events that happen in your mind. Any time — especially in investing — that I feel I’m getting emotional, I stop what I’m doing and take a walk.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: A friend of mine told me a great thing years ago. I was on a board of a school. I was the treasurer. And I was so upset with something that just happened with the administration — something about scholarships. I called up the president — who’s a good friend of mine — and said: “Here’s what I want to do.” And he goes: “That’s the wrong thing. Your first reaction is the wrong one because you’re thinking out of anger and emotion. Go take a walk. Sleep on it.” The next day, it made all the sense in the world.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And I think that, with this vaccine, we’ve become so angry that we’re not thinking. And we think life is a zero-sum game. If I’m right, you have to be wrong. There’s no validity to what you have to say. If you’re right, that means I’m 100% wrong. That’s one point that I think our society has gotten to. It’s just an observation.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: The second thing is that you used to go into a room — before iPhones — and sat waiting. You struck up a conversation with the person sitting next to you.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Today, everyone buries their heads in their phones. You go on an airplane. I do this all the time. I’ve always been interested in people. I’d sit down and say hi. I’d introduce myself and ask: “Where are you from?” Today, when you’re on a plane, they’re heads-down. You’re sitting with someone for six hours on a plane — literally four inches from you. You’re sharing elbow space. We get to know nothing about them. It’s absolutely staggering.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Yeah, I totally agree. That goes back to my point about getting to know each other. And frankly, that’s why I do what I do for a living. I’m privileged because I can talk to all kinds of people. That’s what I do for a living. I ask questions about others, and I get to hear different perspectives. The onus is on us as journalists. We don’t always do great job of it. But we need to do a better job of getting to know all kinds of people. You get different perspectives. And you have to give people the benefit of the doubt. It’s something I work on myself.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: We all get into habits of exaggerating and using hyperbole. So, the people that are against vaccines — they may have decent points. Maybe it’s not for them. I don’t know. I don’t agree with them.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: But sometimes, they’ll use language such as: “It’s like Nazi Germany.” Those of us who have family with firsthand understanding of the horrors of Nazi Germany, it’s outrageous. But I get why they’re saying it. I don’t think they’re being anti-Semitic. I think they’re trying to exaggerate. Everything is hyperbole. It can’t just be bad. It’s like Nazi Germany. We need to tone it down — on both sides — and get to know each other better. And we need to give each other the benefit of the doubt.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: After reading your book — and living it — I tried to be as rational as possible throughout everything. I kept hoping that the economy was going to do well. At the time, I was telling my subscribers that we were going into SaaS companies — where you don’t need a retail location. That business would keep on — regardless of the virus. Business still needed to be done. It was going to be done with commerce. There were winners and losers because of this. And we were going to come out OK.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: This economy, form of government and system of taxation is such that, out of all the countries in the world, we’re going to find the solution. And we did. That didn’t happen by accident. It wasn’t China, Germany or England that found the solution to this problem. It was us. And that was not an accident. That’s everything about America that makes it great.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Look back, this was such a sea change in the way we fight viruses and put a virtual stop to a pandemic. Even though it’s recent, many of us put it out of our minds. But how many people were dying a day? Was it 2,000 to 3,000 people a day or so? We’re both in the New York area. That’s one 9/11 a day.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Yeah, I want to go back to your earlier point. There is good reason to think that — had these vaccines not been developed — this could have gone on for years. The drugs are good, but they’re not great. We haven’t really come up with one that’s as effective as these kinds of vaccines. So, it’s important to be appreciative — and appreciative of America.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: There’s so much to appreciate about this country that I don’t think we’re conscious about. There’s a lot to be unhappy and worried about. But as you said earlier, when you talk to Stephane Bancel, he’s a guy from France. The CEO of Moderna has a thick accent. When you talk to the CEO of BioNTech — Ugur Sahin — he has a German accent. He’s Turkish originally. They all say that these vaccines could not have been developed anywhere other than America.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: That’s partly because of the capitalist system. They were able to raise the money. There were investors who were willing to invest in and back them — without any earnings. It’s a good reminder — even for people like me who work at The Wall Street Journal and believe in the possibilities of capitalism. So, while we’re down and discouraged by a lot of what goes on in this country, we still have a pretty good system here. And like you said, only in America could these effective vaccines have been developed as quickly as they were.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: We’re still living through it. It’s like you’re living through the Renaissance. You don’t wake up every morning and say: “I’m living through the Renaissance.” We’re living through a monumental time. Just a year ago, things were so bleak that a vaccine was created in record time and given out to the American people. At this point, we’re looking at November 2021 — where close to 70% of the population is vaccinated.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Not quite. I wish it was that high.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: What is it?
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: It’s 65%.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK that’s still a far cry from where it was when it first started. It was 10% or 12%. And 65% is still huge! What did they say? The best we’re probably going to do is 70% to 75%? You’ll have 25% of the population that won’t get vaccinated — for whatever reasons. But I think this will go down in history as what happens when a capitalist system is the soil for when innovation, entrepreneurship and calamity all converge. A vaccine — like we have now — is what happens. And I’m excited that we now went to the next level with a new way to vaccinate — a whole new paradigm shift.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I had Walter Isaacson on the show a few months ago. And he wrote the amazing book The Code Breaker about Jennifer Doudna. I hope I’m pronouncing her name right. She was one of the code breakers in finding a way to do vaccines in this manner. And Isaacson spent so much time in the lab with them because it was during COVID-19.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Here’s a guy who wrote a book on Leonardo da Vinci — who spent time at Steve Jobs’ house and wrote a book about him. He wrote about Einstein and Ben Franklin. And I wanted to talk about his other books. He goes: “Charles, you don’t realize what the code breakers did with the mRNA. It’s amazing!” And honestly, I didn’t realize — until now — what a breakthrough that was. I think the American people don’t get that. Most people don’t get that because so many of us are angry — for or against the vaccines, mandates and politics. We don’t see what a miracle this thing was.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Yeah, but I do understand. If you don’t know the backstory, why should you should be concerned? All of the sudden, you’ve got this vaccine. You’re telling me to take it. You’re saying it’s effective. But you got it in a few months? I mean, come on.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: That’s part of the reason I wrote this book. It was actually decades of work and a baton race. As you read my book — A Shot to Save the World — you’ll see that there are early researchers who make some progress. And then, they stumble and fall. They have to pass the baton to the next researcher. They take it up, run, stumble and make some progress. I find that persistence and resilience incredible.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It’s amazing.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: We can all learn from it in some ways — at least, I can. I should speak for myself.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: No, outstanding. Greg, I loved your other two books. I didn’t read the Jim Simmons book. Secondly, I have to have you on the show again. We have to speak about Jim Simmons, and I want to speak about your other books. I love them. I really do. I thought that they were great — especially the ones about finance. It was so exciting.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Thank you.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Great job. Keep doing what you’re doing. I could talk to you for hours about this. And hopefully, you’ll come on the show again. But here’s what I want to end with — and I want to hear your thoughts on it. We now have the Delta variant. This virus is morphing into different variants — which viruses do. They’re amazing pieces of nature that are made to survive. They’re made to get shot at, and they just keep surviving. Their only purpose is to replicate. Get into a host and replicate. That’s their one main function.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: What do you see — in terms of COVID-19 — over the next several years? Is this going to be something like smallpox or polio? Or, is this something that we’re going to face over the next five, 10 or 20 years?
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: I believe that it will be endemic. We’re never going to have a cure. It’s never going to go away. But I don’t think that people should be discouraged that we won’t get a handle on it. I think it will be the kind of thing where — like the flu — we’ll get a vaccine every year or so. It’s going to be more effective than the flu vaccine. You’ll go in. Maybe it’ll be combined with the flu vaccine. They’re working on approaches where you can combine them all. So, it won’t be an extra visit to the doctor.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: And there will be incidents that crop off — especially because large chunks of the world have barely scratched the surface in terms of being vaccinated. It’s 1% or 2% of the population in parts of Asia and Africa. So, there will be new variants. There’ll be incidents in the U.S., too. Pockets will crop up. But I think it’ll be something that we handle.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Eventually, it will become part of the background. You’ll hear about someone who has it. But they’ll be OK with it and get a vaccine or drug. And we will handle it so much better. So, it’s something that we’ll have to live and deal with. But I think we can do so successfully. We can crawl out of this thing and not be beholden to and dependent on masks, lockdowns and things like that. So, I do think things are going to get much better.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Human beings are amazing in how we adapt. And I tend to agree. I look at it optimistically. A year ago, people were dying. Now, COVID-19 is not a death sentence anymore. There is less severity.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I had COVID-19 right as it started in March. And I knew something was wrong. I didn’t know what it was. I just felt really tired, weak and flu-like. My wife said: “You’re probably working too hard, or you’re tired.” And then, I lost my taste and smell for about a month and a half. I remember walking with my dog and picking up his poop. My wife said: “That’s a bad one.” And I’m like: “I don’t even smell it!” It freaked me out. You start smelling you start underarm deodorant, and you can’t smell. It’s frustrating!
CHARLES MIZRAHI: But the worst was when I took the shot. After the first shot, I was out for a full day. It was worse than the thing. But again, the vaccine was doing what it was supposed to do. It was supposed to get my body to do that. I get it.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It’s all the skepticism. Someone wrote something on Facebook or Twitter. You start to pick up all this fake news. And we don’t know how to discern what’s real and what’s not. I hope that a lot of people get smarter, quicker. And if you’re not vaccinated, get the vaccine because it can save your life. It’s that simple.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Yes! And it wasn’t created quickly. And it was made by dedicated scientists who are not political in nature. I’ve talked to them. They’re hard-working and dedicated. They care about the same things we all care about. Mistakes were made along the way by health professionals and public officials. But for the most part, they have done a good job. And we can learn from these people — especially the scientists that I wrote about.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, fantastic. The name of the book is, A Shot to Save the World: The Inside Story of the Life-or-Death Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine. Gregory Zuckerman, all the power to you. Keep fighting the good fight. I’m looking forward to your next book. I’m sure you just finished this one. I’m not going to ask you what your next book is. Do you have an idea? Don’t tell me, but you have an idea yet?
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: I’m still recovering from this.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Still recovering, huh?
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: I’m still recovering from the science of this and getting people to talk and open up. But I’m open to suggestions. People should reach out. But I’m also open to constructive criticism. Some of my best sources are people who read my book and said: “I liked it, Greg. But here’s something that you should be thinking about.” I love that kind of stuff, so I’m open to that. But I’m always thinking about the next topic.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: This time, you didn’t have time to breathe. It was happening in such a compact span of time. You had to write this down. You didn’t want to write something that was wrong, so you probably checked every fact 58 times. And the story’s developing. The financial crisis was over. Paulson made his money. Or, Jim Simmons had a big track record. Frackers were producing. Here, the story is still playing out.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Yeah, it was a difficult endeavor on my part. I made a bet early on that these vaccines would probably work. So, I got to know the people working on them. But it wasn’t clear that they would. It wasn’t clear who would pull off the vaccines. I had to shift gears along the way.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: As you said, I’m not a scientist. So, my advantage is that I can present it to the populace because I’m not from that world. I don’t use all the jargon. And it’s not as confusing as it might have been. But the challenge is understanding the science. I had a local Ph.D. who was my tutor and helped me. I found all kinds of scientists. They were remarkably helpful and cooperative. They were willing to read chapters and tell me where I got it wrong or misunderstood things. They worked with me, and I’m so grateful to them for helping.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Beautiful, Greg. Outstanding. All the power to you, and God bless you. Keep doing it, man.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Thank for having me on the podcast. And hopefully, you’ll go from strength to strength as well.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Great. Thanks so much, Greg.
GREGORY ZUCKERMAN: Sure, have a good day.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Charles Mizrahi Show. If you’re a new listener, welcome! If you’ve been listening for a while, we’re glad to have you back. Either way, we’d love to know what you think of the show. Please leave a review if you listen on Apple Podcasts. Reviews make it easier for others to find the show. You can also see the video of the interview on The Charles Mizrahi Show channel on YouTube.
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