A Global Look at the Virus That Upended the World

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"Targeting the Virus" Art by Mr. Fish.

Incendiary, often racist theories and news about the coronavirus seem to have spread around the world at nearly the same speed as the virus. Fortunately a new PBS NOVA series titled “Decoding Covid-19” offers a humane, global look at the illness that has brought so much of the planet to a grinding halt. Not only does the documentary feature scientists and medical practitioners, as well families impacted by the disease, but it serves to highlight the international cooperation taking place in an effort to tackle the unprecedented crisis. 

On this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” host Robert Scheer speaks with documentary filmmaker Sarah Holt about how she felt while making “Decoding Covid-19” as the crisis unfolded. 

“A lot of people would say to me, ‘It must be so depressing working on a film on COVID-19,’” says the filmmaker. “In fact, I found it pretty inspiring. I was really struck by the level of collaboration among scientists. And I felt like in the different areas we were working, whether it was trying to see if antibodies would protect us, to developing antiviral drugs that could help people that were really sick, to developing a vaccine, I saw a lot of hope and promise.” 

Commending the much-needed global perspective her documentary provided, Scheer asks Holt about her experience traveling to Wuhan, China, the place it is believed the virus first began to spread. While China has been maligned by the U.S. government and others, the journalist points out that leader Xi-Jinping has backed a potential WHO investigation into the origins of the public health crisis, and has pledged $2 billion in aid for developing countries’ battles against Covid-19.

“You begin your documentary in Wuhan,” says the “Scheer Intelligence” host. “What insight can you give us about the origin there, the openness of the Chinese leadership?” 

“We went back to Wuhan because we wanted to be there when the city opened up,” Holt explains. “They didn't open up until they had really controlled the spread of the virus; they were not reporting new cases, they were closing down their hospitals. And we did follow a 21-year-old college student who was one of the first people to get sick with the virus. He successfully fought it. 

“When the city opened up,” she goes on, “we could follow him going back out into the city, and just see the incredible control the Chinese have put in place using cell phone technology. You have to scan your health data to leave your apartment building. You have to tell people where you're going. You're tracked. If you're exposed at any point to someone who is infected with COVID, the codes on your phone will change, and you're denied access to public spaces. 

“So it is scary for someone in America to look at that kind of level of tracing and tracking,” she concludes. “But it shows you that the Chinese are really serious about trying to isolate individuals and avoid shutting down an entire society.”

Speaking on the day scientists at the Boston-based Moderna announced they achieved successful results from their human trials of a Covid-19 vaccine, Scheer asks Holt about her take on the news. While the filmmaker says she finds it “hugely encouraging” that the eight people in the trial were able develop antibodies, she approaches the announcement with some caution. 

“It is a virus that we will be living with for some time,” warns Holt. “Even though there's been a lot of progress right now, with just the Moderna vaccine, it will still take quite a bit of time to make sure that this works in thousands of people, and that it's safe. And then to scale up a vaccine and get it deployed to people around the world. 

“The Moderna vaccine is a special type of vaccine made from RNA, and it's highly unstable,” she explains. “It needs to be kept at very cold temperatures. So that's the problem we're going to have to solve to deploy this vaccine around the world, especially to places where it's hard to keep things so cold.”

The “Decoding Covid-19” filmmaker adds that a vaccine might also require a booster after a period of time due to the nature of the virus. Listen to the full discussion between Holt and Scheer as the two discuss the impact of the novel coronavirus, in addition to the power of documentary filmmaking in chronicling the world we live in, as well as the incredible cooperation required to create the film series in just 6 weeks.  



Joshua Scheer

Introduction: Natasha Hakimi Zapata