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The sprint to create a COVID-19 vaccine started in January. The finish line awaits.

For five days, the FedEx plane sat on the tarmac in Shanghai.

American scientists at Novavax, a biotech company in suburban Maryland, waited with increasing impatience. The plane held a copy of a key gene from the newly discovered coronavirus. Novavax needed the gene to try to develop a vaccine.

The scientists had been in similar situations before. Every time a new disease came along – SARS, MERS, Ebola – they made candidate vaccines to see whether they could tame it. They thought of their research as an experiment.

But the longer the plane remained stuck, the more they wondered if this time might not be a drill.

By Jan. 30, the fourth day, the virus still lacked a name, but it already was in dozens of countries, sickening more than 8,200 and killing 171, most in Wuhan City, China. Every day the Novavax researchers waited meant another day they couldn’t try to help.

Novavax president of R&D Dr. Gregory Glenn picked up the phone that day, a Thursday. He called GenScript, the company that had copied the gene in China, and persuaded the firm to make it again, this time at its lab in Piscataway, New Jersey.

By late Sunday night, the gene was ready. GenScript's vice president of sales for North America hopped into his car and drove it four hours south, arriving at 2 a.m., Monday, Feb. 3. Glenn was there to meet him.

Novavax had been through a tough time. Four months earlier, it had been “given up for dead,” Glenn said, after its candidate vaccine for a childhood virus called RSV failed a crucial trial. The staff had been cut from 800 to 50.

Some of the company’s senior leadership wanted to stick to pursuing that vaccine and follow through on the one research trial they still had money to complete. But Glenn argued it would be a huge mistake to pass up the chance to fight a new virus that was getting scarier by the hour.  

Other companies were beginning to see vaccine development as a once-in-a-century crisis they could help conquer. 

For nine months now, researchers around the world have been racing to develop a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, which on its deadliest day in the U.S. killed nearly as many people as died on 9/11, 19 years ago today. 


Photo: These are the doctors and nurses of the San Salvatore Hospital in Pesaro, Italy, the city of my birth and where I once again reside, which from day one has sadly been at the top of the COVID-19 contagion and death charts. I photographed them at the end of their shifts—twelve hours without a break during their fight in an unequal war. In the quiet moments in front of my camera, these embattled individuals are in a state of total abandon, victims of an exhaustion that eats away at the body and the mind, a breathlessness that renders one disoriented, detached from time and space. They would take off their masks, caps, and gloves in front of my lens, remaining motionless, looking for some sort of normalcy amid the hell they were living.

Alberto Giuliani - Own work


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