Why I Wrote a Book About COVID?
Dozens of books have already been written about COVID. Why write another one?
On February 13, 2024, National Geographic will be publishing a book I wrote called, TELL ME WHEN IT’S OVER: AN INSIDER’S GUIDE TO DECIPHERING COVID MYTHS AND NAVIGATING OUR POST-PANDEMIC WORLD. At this point, many of us feel that the pandemic is over. I’d like to explain why I wrote it.
Here’s how the pandemic unfolded for me. In December 2019, a novel bat coronavirus made its debut in the human population. By the end of February 2020, the first American had died from COVID. In April 2020, Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), asked me and a few dozen experts to participate in a public-private partnership called ACTIV (Accelerating Covid-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines). By May 2020, only one month after our group had its first meeting, 200,000 Americans had died from COVID.
Throughout 2020, we didn’t have antiviral medicines or monoclonal antibodies or vaccines. The pressure to create life-saving products was intense. But until something was available, all we could do was isolate, quarantine, mask, and test, test, test. By the end of 2020, more than 500,000 Americans had died from COVID.
During this period, I was also a member of the FDA vaccine advisory committee responsible for recommending authorization of COVID vaccines. On December 10, 2020, Pfizer presented results of a 40,000-adult study of its vaccine to our committee. Under the umbrella of the much-heralded government program known as Operation Warp Speed—which eliminated the risk of vaccine development for pharmaceutical companies—this was the fastest vaccine ever made. And it was made with a technology (messenger RNA or mRNA) that had never been used before. One week later, on December 17, 2020, Moderna presented the results of its 30,000-adult mRNA vaccine to our committee.
Imagine what it was like being on the committee at that time. Here was a virus, SARS-CoV-2, which had unusual biological and clinical characteristics, that we were trying to defeat with a novel, untested technology. Because the mRNA trials had been placebo-controlled (half the participants had received saltwater), about 20,000 people had received Pfizer’s vaccine and 15,000 had received Moderna’s. With data from about 35,000 people, our committee was now asked to recommend authorization for vaccines that would soon be given to hundreds of millions of people. Did we know enough? Worse, as we got to younger and younger age groups, the number of children studied was smaller and smaller. Again, did we know enough?
This is why I wrote TELL ME WHEN IT’S OVER; what did we get right, what did we get wrong, and what did we learn along the way. It’s also my attempt to debunk the many myths about COVID and COVID vaccines that arose during this pandemic.
We made a few communications errors. For example, although it was a remarkable scientific achievement, the phrase “Operation Warp Speed” worried people that corners had been cut or, worse, that vaccine safety guidelines had been ignored. Also, the CDC’s use of the term “breakthrough” to describe mild or asymptomatic infections set an unrealistic expectation of what these vaccines could and couldn’t do. Most Americans are still confused about what it means to be fully protected against this virus.
When COVID vaccines were first made available, people rushed to get them. By May 2021, about 70 percent of the U.S. population had been vaccinated. Then we hit a wall. Many people simply refused to be vaccinated, arguing that COVID wasn’t that bad, or that the vaccines were too risky. I wrote this book in attempt to understand how this happened. Why did anti-vaccine activism swing so wildly to the right? Why, for some, did “vaccines” become a dirty word?
Although the pandemic is over, the virus isn’t. SARS-CoV-2 and its variants will likely circulate for decades if not longer. Where do we go from here? Can we make a vaccine that offers broader, longer-lasting protection against all variants? How can we best treat or prevent long COVID? Does everyone need a yearly vaccine? Do children need to be vaccinated, given that they are much lower risk of dying from this disease? Is natural infection better than immunization?
Finally, did we make a mistake mandating COVID vaccines, which included many people losing their jobs? Should we have closed schools for as long as we did? Given the current pushback against all vaccine mandates, including those for schoolchildren, did we do more harm than good?
In many ways, this book has been a catharsis from what has been a rough four years. For me. For all of us. There was a steep learning curve. And I worry that this learning curve has come at the expense of the public’s trust in the people and institutions that were responsible for these decisions.