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Gregory Zuckerman ’88: ‘The Hunt for the Covid Vaccine’

In a webinar that took place on April 6, Gregory Zuckerman ’88 discussed his book “A Shot to Save the World: The Inside Story of the Life-or-Death Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine,” as well as journalism during the coronavirus pandemic. 

 

The event was introduced by President Ron Liebowitz, who said that “Brandeis is excited to welcome back Zuckerman.” The event would focus on “how we tell stories about the modern world,” he continued. 

 

The first question that was asked of Zuckerman was how an accomplished business reporter with an economics degree ended up reporting on COVID-19. Zuckerman said that this “struck [him] early in the process … There is no bigger story, scientific but also financial.” “These vaccines are modern science’s greatest achievement but also modern finance’s greatest achievement,” he continued. Among the grim outlooks on the situation, “There were researchers who were optimistic about creating this vaccine.” 

 

Zuckerman continued by saying that he tells “stories through the people and not everyone likes that approach. I apply it to different areas,” including the energy sector and finance. He acknowledges that he writes about very difficult topics, but he does that through characters who hopefully the readers find entertaining. 

 

Although Zuckerman highlighted that not everyone likes that approach—of telling stories through characters—he tries to work with those who do not like it. His “editors have been very happy to have me work with experts in those fields,” Zuckerman added. 

 

When Zuckerman began the process of writing the book, he did not know too much about the topic. “I love to work with reports in the field to share stories with our audience, and I am very thankful for how willing they are [to share],” he said. He asked a lot of questions throughout the process, even hiring a Ph.D. student who worked closely with him and helped.

 

Zuckerman hopes that the book would be of overall value to the whole community; the “reader can learn from people overcoming setbacks … I have my own, and I relate to the characters.”  

 

When asked about the scientist with whom he worked, Zuckerman said that a lot of them are “high achievers that are Type A: competitive, with big egos and difficult. They are not necessarily people you want to have a cup of coffee with, and yet they step up and save the world.” 

 

A lot of people tend to say that they are unsure whether they like the characters in Zuckerman’s books or not, to which he said that he himself believes in gray characters. “I don’t like black and white characters.” Overall, this is a process, and people change their minds. This allows people to learn from that person. 

 

When asked about the rampant anti-vaccine movement in the United States, Zuckerman said that changing their minds was not his goal. Before this one, the fastest vaccine ever made took four years, and with COVID-19, the time frame was much shorter. “I would be hesitant myself, if I didn’t research this book,” said Zuckerman about the vaccine. However people need to appreciate the history, there are decades of history behind this vaccine, as he explained.  

 

Zuckerman is a writer for the Wall Street Journal and has published numerous books. He has won the Gerald Loeb Award three times. 

 

The event was moderated by Neil Swiney (JOUR) and Ann Silvio (JOUR), and according to the description, was “held in conjunction with the Brandeis Journalism Program’s new course on Science Journalism, the Pandemic and Disinformation.” The event was sponsored by the Journalism Program.

 

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