Acclaimed film-maker David France’s How to Survive a Pandemic on HBO documents ‘a scientific undertaking unlike any in our lifetime’
How to Survive a Pandemic, investigative journalist and director David France’s documentary on the road to developing, producing and inequitably distributing several Covid-19 vaccines, begins on the day vaccines went from murky future to clear horizon. The film opens in December 2020, in the remarkably bespoke basement of the US Food and Drug Administration’s Dr Peter Marks. The room is decked in Mardi Gras beads and a teddy bear; Marks’s clunky work laptop is surrounded by cans of oats. On camera and on the phone with Gen Gustave Perna, the chief operating officer of the federal Covid-19 response for vaccine and therapeutics, Marks celebrates the FDA’s emergency use authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. “Sorry you had to deal with all that political crap,” says Perna. “Vaccines will be moving tomorrow.”
The moment is an undeniable achievement of modern science despite significant political headwinds in the US and, as France’s film deftly argues, an opportunity to empower public health largely squandered by national self-interest. By 2022, there are now several documentaries tackling some slice of the pandemic: Alex Gibney’s Totally Under Control, on the Trump administration’s costly botching of the early pandemic response in the US; Nanfu Wang’s similarly damning In the Same Breath, on the US and China’s mishandling of the virus; Matthew Heineman’s grueling The First Wave, on the devastating initial pandemic in New York. France’s film has its fair share of devastation and tragic Covid iconography – ambulances, ventilators, footage of mass burials. But is trained in particular on the sprint, from the moment the virus was sequenced, to develop a public health bulwark of vaccines: when they would be available, who would make them, how they would be distributed, how much the political chaos of the Trump administration would corrode the scientific process.
France and a team of contributors
Which eventually spread to five continents, started shooting in April 2020, just weeks into the pandemic in the US. The nearly two-hour film embeds first and foremost with Jon Cohen, a senior correspondent for Science magazine who has also published widely elsewhere and, like France, was an early chronicler of the Aids crisis. Both Cohen and France, whose 2012 film How To Survive a Plague offers what many consider to be the definitive account of activism in response to the HIV/Aids crisis, were familiar with numerous public health experts from their prior work.
“I knew that they would understand my proposal to them, which is that given the historic nature of this – a scientific undertaking unlike any in our lifetime, the entire globe waiting for them and putting our hopes on their shoulders – [to] let me in, let me behind the curtain,” France said. “And luckily, they agreed.” belajar piano untuk anak kecil This includes White House adviser Anthony Fauci, who appears in the film over a glass of beer with Cohen on a back patio, after work hours.
The project required a “magisterial amount of producing” crew on five continents, sometimes shooting at the same time. “We had this motto: do no harm,” France explained. “We were really careful about our requests for people’s time.” For those they did request, including developers of the Moderna, Oxford-AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, “people really understood the need to document,” France said. The crew worked out exclusive arrangements “where we said, ‘Look, I know you’re getting hit by a bunch of proposals, we want to do the definitive story as faithful to the science as possible.’”
Overshadowing the whole process were the expectations of Operation Warp Speed, the Trump White House effort to turbocharge development of a vaccine, and the specter of the 2020 presidential election. Or, as Cohen put it in May 2020, as the global death toll surged past 250,000 lives: “We’re just scared that science will be steamrolled” by the political agenda.
That anxiety permeates the film
Particularly by public health officials toggling between candor and contrition around the political atmosphere that threatened to derail or alter the process. sound kaleng “I told everybody that we weren’t doing the politics story; we were doing the science story, but that the politics would of course be in the background,” France explained of striking a balance between acknowledgment of the political reality – a childish White House hellbent on staying in office – and a dispassionate view of the science.
The film captures the weight of that noise, “to know whether science would be able to hold to its own rails given these hurricane winds.” The team found that the answer was yes, which was “an important revelation because there’s so much skepticism about the speed with which these vaccines were developed and rolled out,” France explained.