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The story of the COVID-19 vaccine, from the lab to millions of arms

A typical vaccine takes five to 10 years to develop. When the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine launched in December 2020, the U.S. had been shut down for just 9 months. How did the time to create a vaccine for the novel coronavirus get reduced as much as tenfold?

This race to produce and approve a COVID-19 vaccine is the focus of Vaccinating America: The Inside Story Behind the Race to Save Lives and End a Pandemic, a new book from APHA press by Dr. Michael Fraser and Brent Ewig. The authors, both longtime public health officials, tell a tumultuous success story rife with bureaucratic in-fighting and public resistance.

On March 23, 2023, Fraser and Ewig visited UC Berkeley School of Public Health as part of the Dean’s Speaker Series to talk about the challenges that public health officials faced to both produce the vaccine and then distribute it to millions of Americans.

Dr. Anthony Iton, Berkeley Public Health lecturer and senior vice president for programs and partnerships at The California Endowment, moderated the discussion after an introduction by Dean Michael C. Lu.

“Despite a thousand challenges, the public health system at the federal, state, and local level—with taxpayer dollars—came together and got 600 million doses out in 18 months,” Ewig said. “And the top line is those were your taxpayer dollars at work. And that’s what public health does with public funding; it’s probably one of the greatest bipartisan investments in American history.”

Ewig serves as chief policy and government relations officer for the Association of Immunization Managers and Fraser is the CEO of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. He and Fraser frequented health policy circles prior to working together at the Association of Maternal and Child Programs from 2008 to 2013. When the pandemic occurred, the two kept in touch and were compelled to set down in print how the vaccine traveled from the factory to millions of Americans’ arms.

“There were thousands of people involved in [the vaccine rollout] who you will never know, and yet we’re all here literally talking about them,” Fraser said. “That was the narrative.”

Although Fraser has co-authored other books and Ewig is a self-published novelist, writing Vaccinating America posed a few distinctive challenges for them. Incorporating workers’ personal stories from development to disbursement was difficult, said Fraser, but crucial in order to make the book an accessible narrative for all readers while also relatable to health practitioners.

Published by the American Public Health Association, their book has garnered gratitude from health workers out in the field, according to Ewig. By documenting which mistakes were made under both presidential administrations, the CDC, and other government agencies, the two were able to memorialize the obstacles that health officials endured to help save millions of people’s lives.

“It was those folks on the ground, doing the work, that we wanted to honor them by sharing the story,” Ewig said.