Written by Luke Gerwe, NewsHour Classroom’s editor
Work on the vaccine for COVID-19 began almost immediately after the virus’s gene sequence was made publicly available in January 2020. After rigorous vaccine trials, the FDA approved two vaccines as safe and effective for use in the United States before the end of 2020 (with more expected on the way). Still, well into 2021, challenges remain in distributing the vaccine to make sure everyone who needs it can get it, and to ensure enough people seek out the vaccine to ensure “herd immunity” and end outbreaks of the disease in this country. This lesson is designed to explore the origins of the coronavirus vaccine and consider ways distribution could be more fair, efficient and effective.
Warm-up activity: Start by discussing as a class what participants already know about this vaccine and how it works. Some useful questions to start out:
- How do vaccines generally work? How do vaccines train immune systems to fight diseases?
- Why do some vaccines (like the flu vaccines) require boosters every year, while others are effective for much longer?
- How are vaccines tested for safety and efficacy (how effective they are at preventing infection, symptoms or spread)?
- What have students heard about new strains of COVID-19 vaccine, and how might those new strains impact vaccine efficacy?
- What have students heard about problems or disparities in vaccine distribution?
- Alone or in small groups, research the origins and approval process of the current COVID-19 vaccines, including how these vaccines help build resistance or immunity to the disease. Also research who is still not getting vaccinated despite being eligible.
- Write a short narrative or explainer summarizing findings in a way that would help someone who doesn’t know much about the vaccine or is uncertain about being vaccinated better understand where the COVID-19 vaccine comes from and how it works.
- Make sure to pay attention to the dates of each article, since science and distribution are advancing rapidly. You can discuss where to find valid sources as a class or use some or all of the following resources:
- World Health Organization (WHO) COVID vaccine explainer
- CNN COVID explainer
- Years of research laid groundwork for speedy COVID-19 vaccines
- Vaccines against coronavirus will have side effects — and that’s a good thing
- Fauci on the efficacy of new vaccines and preparing for coronavirus variants
- Trust in COVID-19 vaccines is vital to control the pandemic. Why are some hesitant?
- What is driving the disparities in vaccine distribution
- Older adults without family or friends lag in race to get vaccines
- Black Americans are getting vaccinated at lower rates than white Americans
- Why new coronavirus variants emerge, and what that means for you
Bonus: Read this interesting New York Times article about Dr. Ugur Sahin and Dr. Ozlem Tureci, the immigrant couple in Germany who developed the early vaccine technology that led to Pfizer’s groundbreaking COVID vaccine.
Warm-up Activity: Start by discussing with classmates what participants know about who is eligible for vaccines in your community and how to access vaccines. What is the process for getting registered and finding available vaccines?
- As a class, in groups or on your own, research how to register for vaccination in your community, as well as who is currently eligible. If helpful, you can use this NewsHour Classroom walk-through to explore how registration works in one community. You can also check out this NewsHour article, “Eight tips for finding a COVID-19 vaccine.”
- After determining how to register for vaccines, think through who in your community might be eligible now or will soon eligible but might not yet have a clear plan for getting vaccinated. This might include:
- The elderly or others who have trouble using their computers or otherwise accessing vaccine registration.
- People with disabilities who may not be able to register or travel to vaccination sites.
- People who don’t know about the vaccine or are worried or skeptical about being vaccinated.
- Any other people who may be eligible for the vaccine but have no current plan to get vaccinated.
- End by brainstorming ideas for ways to encourage or help one of those identified groups register for vaccination. On day 3, you will invent and test a plan to help boost vaccinations in their communities, so this counts as a preview of the next day’s activity. Ideas might include:
- An information campaign: Use the information you’ve gathered to help the group you’ve identified make a plan for vaccination. How could you best get this information to the targeted group to remove barriers to vaccination?
- New technology or infrastructure: Could vaccination be easier or more convenient for members of the community with new technology or infrastructure? If so, what would help? A scheduling app? A system to get vaccinations to people who can’t travel to vaccination sites?
- An advocacy campaign: Do you think the current policy of vaccine distribution is unfair or inefficient in some way? How could the system be changed? Who could you contact to advocate for that change, and how? In what local venue could you advocate for change?
Warm-up activity: Discuss ideas for encouraging vaccinations or eliminating roadblocks or unfairness in vaccine distribution in their local community. Choose one idea to pursue as a class, as individuals or in small groups.
Main activities: Use the Lemelson-MIT invention process to build out and test your plan. The invention process includes the following steps:
- Concept phase: Identify a problem, conduct research and brainstorm solutions. (This step is already complete if you’ve completed day 1 and day 2 activities.)
- Design phase: Create a plan, calculate costs, select the best solution and determine necessary resources.
- Build phase: Sketch, model or build a prototype. This could be a prototype of technology or infrastructure that helps people get vaccinated in your community, or it could be the outline of an information or advocacy campaign as discussed above.
- Review and redesign phase: Review the invention for strengths and weaknesses. Present prototypes (plans) to the class and discuss ways to make each proposal stronger.
Once proposals are complete, students are welcome to explore ways to put them into action together, if feasible. Share phase: share photos or ideas using #PBSInvention via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and we’ll send you a prize!