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[bright music] - Hello everyone, and welcome to 'Amanpour & Company.'
Here's what's coming up.
- I feel attracted to that and activated by it and invigorated by the fact that I get to tell stories about my people, about black people.
- [Amanpour] Oscar-nominated director Ava DuVernay joins me on her new series about Colin Kaepernick, revealing the young man who became the activist, and what needs to change in Hollywood after that fatal shooting on a movie set.
Then Micheal Lewis, author of 'Moneyball' and 'The Premonition,' grapples with his own unimaginable loss at a time when the whole world is numb with grief.
Plus, 'A Shot to Save the World.'
Journalist and author, Greg Zuckerman tells Walter Isaacson why so many immigrants are the unsung heroes of this pandemic.
[bright music] - [Announcer] 'Amanpour & Company' is made possible by the Anderson Family Fund, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, Candace King Weir, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein family, the Straus Family Foundation, Jim Attwood and Leslie Williams, Mark J. Blechner, Bernard and Denise Schwartz, Koo and Patricia Yuen, committed to bridging cultural differences in our communities.
Additional support provided by these funders and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you, thank you.
- Welcome to the program, everyone.
I'm Christiane Amanpour in New York.
Is the NFL dropping the ball?
America's most popular sports league is facing fresh scrutiny this week over its culture.
That's after racist and sexist emails led to the resignation of head coach Jon Gruden of the Las Vegas Raiders.
Commissioner Roger Goodell has promised to make changes, but critics say the league, a billion-dollar business with legions of fans, simply hasn't done enough.
And they point to the treatment of Colin Kaepernick, the former player who famously took a knee back in 2016 and launched a movement for social justice.
His supporters say that cost him his sports career.
And now a new Netflix series looks at how Kaepernick's high school years reveal unsettling truths about our society.
It's called 'Colin in Black and White' and here's a clip from the trailer.
- [Colin] It turned out my competition wasn't only on the field.
- Look, you've got a ton of natural talent, okay?
But Johnson? He's the prototype I'm looking for.
- [Colin] Growing up with white parents, I assumed their privilege was mine.
- You two good?
- Okay. - Fine, thanks.
- Yeah, I'm good too, thanks.
- I was in for a rude awakening.
- [Man] What's up with Kaepernick?
The hair, there's something climbing out the back of his head.
It's not acceptable.
- Kaepernick's collaborator on this series is Ava DuVernay.
She is the Peabody-winning director who received an Oscar nomination for her film 'Selma'. And from Martin Luther King to Colin Kaepernick she tells me what it's like to be trusted with all these stories, especially at this time of reckoning, colliding with the culture wars.
Ava DuVernay, welcome back to our program.
- So happy to be here.
- And so great to see you in real life 'cause during COVID it's always been remote.
- We've always been on screens.
- We have. - It's such a pleasure.
- And likewise, and I want to read to you or quote to you what one of the reviewers have said, and I think it's very profound, so tell me if you agree.
'Ava DuVernay is a film director, a television producer, 'a storyteller whom people turn to to tell their truth 'because she is so trusted.'
Is that you?
- Well, I love to hear that and I take it very seriously, I don't take that for granted that people feel that way.
I've heard it before and it touches me deeply.
My first inkling of it was when I was working on 'Selma' and working with the King family.
'When They See Us,' dealing with the families of the five boys.
Even on '13th' there was some specifics in there with families who've been victims of police brutality.
And so now with Colin Kaepernick I feel like I'm getting a little bit more used to it, I feel like I know how to do it, and it's really about respect.
Imagine if you were handing your life over to someone and all the trust that it takes to say, portray me well, express what I wanna say, and take that seriously.
- So, what did Colin Kaepernick say to you?
'Colin in Black & White' is about to launch on Netflix.
- Yes, he came to me and he said that he was interested in doing something on his early life, and when I first heard it, I thought, oh, let's do something on now, let's start with the kneeling, let's do it now, but he had a very particular point of view as to why he wanted to kind of lay a foundation for who he was by starting with his early adulthood, which I think at the end of the project now I think it was quite wise.
It allows people to enter into his story kind of a little more free of the politics around it and just see a kid who is struggling to control and determine what his voice would be.
And so it has a nice effect.
It was a decision that was solely based on what he wanted to do, and I'm glad that I leaned into it.
- It really does take away from the politics and the culture war that's erupted over taking the knee.
And that's a culture war that's extended to the UK, the soccer players, and in so many places.
Are you surprised that that small act, significant small act, has become such a poisoned chalice?
- I don't know if I'm surprised by it.
I think if you look at Tommy Smith, if you look at Mohammad Ali, if you look at athletes who've tried to kind of take control of their own narrative, there's something about the athlete that is in such a controlled system.
Baseball, football, American football, all of these, these are institutions that have systems.
And the athlete in the middle of it is expected to behave and perform in a certain way, right?
That is a controlled way, that is a very defined way.
Anyone who steps outside of that is committing a radical act, right?
And so I'm not surprised that it caused the ire that it has.
What surprises me is the reverberations now six years later.
- In 'Cornrows,' the first episode, it's very dramatic and somewhat uncomfortable, I suppose by design, where you sort of go from image to image, slave auction, to NFL recruitment.
What are you saying?
- Well, this was something that was really important to Colin.
He felt that he went through the NFL combine process, which I wasn't even aware of.
There's this process that as you're entering into professional American football, you are measured, predominantly black men.
Their muscles are measured, their strength is calculated, they are on tables with their shirts off, just in their briefs with doctors around kind of poking and prodding, and that this is a very invasive process for the black body to go through, to be commodified to determine what the potential for profit is.
And that he saw that as analogous to the slave auctions where black men and women and children were put on slave blocks to be poked and prodded to assess if they could work in the fields properly or in the house.
And so he saw an analogy between that which I thought was striking and agreed there was a conversation to be had.
So we opened the series on these images that really asks us to consider how we value black life.
Is it only valuable when it is famous, when it is respectable, when it is in service to the dominant culture?
Or is it just inherently of value?
- 'Cause he was a quarterback for the San Francisco 49rs and then his career took a dive because of taking the knee.
But let's go back to how you start, because it is about his childhood and the cornrows.
Tell me why that was so important and so formative for a young black kid, but he's mixed-race, because his mother was white, his father was black, he's adopted by a white family.
The significance of the cornrows.
- Right, well, each episode tackles something that on its surface is seemingly unimportant, right?
Or something small.
Every episode, him getting his license, this issue with the first time he took a girl to prom, asked a girl to prom.
Within each of the episodes, we're mining it for cultural context and talking about things like identity and privilege and respectability and race and class.
So in the first episode, the one I directed, we talk about cornrows.
This is just a teenager who wants to have a new hairstyle.
His parents don't really like the hairstyle, but what kid has this not happened to?
But within this episode, we talk a little bit more about the significance of black hair, 'cause black hair over the generations has really been not really black hair but used as a proxy, a proxy for social control, right?
Most people don't know that black men were really required not to have facial hair in the early part of the last century.
Black women, most black women that you'll see, the majority of black women have straightened or processed hair.
It's more respectable, you'll get the job, it's more amenable to a white palate, right?
To be more like whiteness.
And so even the hair I wear is a political act.
- Is it? - Well, yes.
This is naturally coming out of my head this way, right?
I don't straighten my hair, I used to.
I don't straighten my hair.
And the idea that hair has to be a question for black people, as to how it will be processed or not processed is something that non-black people don't even have to think about or deal with.
And so the idea of taking these cornrows, this seemingly small thing in this boy's life, and really putting that into and juxtaposing it with the larger cultural context is what we do throughout the series.
- And particularly, I mean he has a first try with the cornrows and it's so painful and he gets a headache and it's not done properly.
And then somehow he gets his mom, his white mother, to take him to the first black barbershop or hairstylist, and it's like walking into Nirvana or some say, Narnia.
It's like opening the door and going into the most fantastic reality for him.
- Well, he was in proximity to blackness for the first time, going into a space that is inherently black, right?
Black people, black, you know, lifestyle, anecdotes, food, music, hairstyle.
And having been in a white family, in a predominantly white town, he had no proximity to something that he was attracted to and felt a part of.
So in those early days when he was going into the barbershop, which we know the black barbershop and beauty salon is, a real therapeutic kind of sacred place for some people.
He goes into that space and he feels an affection, an affinity, a connection to something that he'd been disconnected from.
- He has said in interviews that this is not just for black and brown people to look at and hopefully get inspiration and learn about their culture, their heritage, what's their right, what's their special place, but also for white people to observe the microaggressions, all the daily abuses that so many black people face.
- Growing up with white parents, I moved through life with their audacity of whiteness.
I assumed their privilege was mine.
- So the question is, what about his family who are white?
The mother and the father around the dinner table say, 'Colin, it's time for you to stop wearing that hair 'because you won't get here, there, or anywhere.'
And anyway,' the mom says, 'It makes you look like a thug.'
And thug was what the NBA player who was his sort of, he looked up to-- - Yes, Allen Iverson. - Exactly.
Who had the cornrows, he had been called that by others.
Did the mother call him a thug, and have they seen the series?
- I don't know if they've seen the series, that's Colin's responsibility to tell his parents so I don't know what he's done, but yes, he says that, that that did happen.
The interesting thing about working with the characters of the parents for me is, whenever I'm working as a director, or writer, producer on a piece, I have to feel a connection to every character.
'Cause I'm writing that character.
I'm helping portray that character through the direction.
And so for me, I had to really think about his white parents.
And as I talked with him and kind of got to know them through his eyes, I felt like these were well-meaning people who loved him.
As you watch the series, there's no doubt that there's a care, that there's love there, there's a connection to their boy.
This is their son.
But that they were ill-equipped to be raising a black man.
They just did not know how to do that.
And they wanted him to be like them.
They didn't want him not to be himself, they wanted to keep him safe.
We know how to do that over here when you're with us doing this.
We don't know how to protect you over there.
We gotta get out of a place where demonizing or criminalizing folks for what they don't know.
And at that time they just did not know, but they were well-meaning.
And, over the years, they started to warm to what he wanted to do, to what he was attracted to, and kind of come to a place of understanding - What do you want to be the lasting legacy of this series?
What do you want, or the immediate that viewers take away?
- For me, I hope people don't walk away from this and say, oh, this was a piece about Colin Kaepernick.
I hope that they come out of it thinking about their own journey.
I'm not saying that in a sweet saccharin way, I'm saying truly, this is about the little things that happen to you, that you just hold dear.
And you don't really even think about how it affects who you have become.
Our road takes all these little turns based on small things.
Microaggressions with little, something someone said to you.
Someone told me once, 'Oh, you have dark elbows.'
So I never show my elbows.
I always have this long-- - Seriously, still?
Even with all that you know?
- Seriously, still. I was nine.
- But even now? - I know.
- You're Ava DuVernay.
- I know, but they told me that.
And when I'm getting dressed, I always think about it.
This is what life is.
It's the little things that change us, that go deep and, and that's what I want to show.
That cornrows incident changed him.
The episode you'll see where it's his first interaction with a black girl changed him, right?
As a girlfriend.
All of the little things that shape us and ask people to interrogate, what are those for me?
What are the little things that I've been told about myself that I accepted as true?
And what do I need to retell?
Next time you see me I'm gonna be in a sundress.
- I wanna see it. - I'm going to.
Yes, you cannot allow that to shape your life.
It doesn't shape your life, but shape the way you dress.
- That's right.
- Colin has been lambasted as well as admired for what he's done.
Some have said, 'Oh my gosh, if he really loved football, he'd keep playing instead of, you know, kneeling.'
So this is what he said.
'I'm still up at 5:00 AM training, five, six days a week, 'making sure I'm prepared to take a team 'to a Superbowl again.
'That's not something I will ever let go of, 'regardless of the actions of 32 teams and their partners 'to deny me employment.'
Will he ever make peace with what's happened?
Do you think you'll ever go back to the NFL?
I mean, I know you don't know, but what do you think?
- I dunno, but I mean, if he goes back to the NFL, it's up to the NFL.
The NFL has been the institution that's blocked him, that's blackballed him.
He's prepared and stays ready to play.
As a friend, that's not my wish for him.
I don't wish for anyone to go into an unhealthy racist environment.
That is what the National Football League in the United States is, straight up.
But he has a desire and a great level of football and stays ready and prepare to go back.
So, it's up to them.
- The great director, Jane Campion, who has had long periods where she doesn't produce a film, and now there's a new one coming out, 'The Power of The Dog', which I'm really looking forward to seeing.
But she has said that she feels things have changed for women directors since the Me Too movement.
But that nonetheless, everything she does is focused on womanhood, on what it means to be a woman, every piece of work she does.
That's her mission, she says, because half the world's population are completely underrepresented.
So you have made your name focusing on African-Americans, the legacy of slavery, and everything that it means to be black.
Whether 'Selma' '13th' and 'When They See Us' and now this.
Is that your mission?
Do you feel absolutely conscious that is what you will do for the rest of your working life?
- I feel attracted to that, and activated by it and invigorated by the fact that I get to tell stories about my people, about black people.
So it doesn't feel like a weight, it doesn't feel like a responsibility.
It doesn't feel like anything I need to commit to.
As an artist, I'm attracted to doing things that I'm interested in and I'm interested in us.
Why? Because there's not enough out there.
And that there's so many other stories to tell.
You look up 100 years of cinema, and you look at the fraction of that that's been dedicated to black life and black people, there's so much more to do.
If I'm in a position that I get to do it, I say, give it to me.
- How do you feel about critical race theory and the backlash towards it in culture right now here?
- I think the backlash is pedestrian, it's uninformed.
It's people who are uneducated about what critical race theory is.
The words have been weaponized.
The theory is not even being fully understood.
I think it's Kay Ivey, the Governor of Alabama sent out a tweet a few days ago saying, critical race theory has been banned, we are teaching our children to read and write.
Like wait, are they the same thing?
No, critical race theory is a theory that's taught usually at the collegiate level.
And it is about systems.
It is about looking at the structures and systems that have been put in place to create hierarchy, to create and enforce cast.
And the idea that we are so afraid of our own history that we can't even teach what's happened in the past to our children is insanity.
And it is a road to destruction and despair.
- So another watercooler item that's cropped up, has been the removal or the moving of the statue of Thomas Jefferson at the New York City Council.
So this was put up in 1834 by a Jewish gentlemen, Levy, who did it in response and in gratitude to Thomas Jefferson's proclamation for religious freedom.
And Thomas Jefferson had slaves.
And my question to you is, when you get to that level, what should we be thinking about that?
- If you're owning 600 human beings, are you worthy of having statues in public spaces because of something good that you did over here?
It's a worthy conversation.
It's about taking a closer look at our American heroes and really not accepting the established narrative.
And so, [indistinct]. - Can I ask you another question, which is major water cooler, and I ask you as a director.
Obviously the tragic shooting that happened on the set of 'Rust' with Alec Baldwin.
Do you have those fears now, when you think about being on set and if there are guns or whatever, or other dangerous items?
- It was a gut punch to hear about that incident and I think for anyone that works on sets.
I spend half of my years on a set, and that space is such a sacred space, it's such an intimate space.
It's such a space of trust with everyone around you.
This is a set where protocols went wrong.
Things that are established in our industry did not happen.
For me, we stopped using guns, real guns on our sets five years ago, any set that I control, any set of anything I direct that comes out of our production company, Array.
We use rubber guns, or we use things that are just toys, they're hollow on the inside.
There's no reason to still be having live ammo on a set.
But the bottom line is they shouldn't be on sets is my stance.
I think you'll find more crews will say, we don't want it, and more directors will say no.
And I doubt there'll be resistance much longer.
Unfortunately the tragedy has put us in a place where it may help our industry.
- Well, finally, what's next for you?
- So many things. - Yeah.
Break some news. - So many things.
I'm working with DC Comics on a couple of things, which is interesting.
I'm working in an unscripted space, I'm working in the animation space.
I love the idea that I can have these same ideas, but I can apply them to different genres and formats.
And that's just something that black women directors before me and producers just never had the opportunity to do.
So I've got the opportunity, I'm doing it all and I'm enjoying it.
- And on that note. - Yes.
Thank you. - Thank you.
Fantastic to sit with you.
- And 'Colin In Black and White' will start streaming on Netflix at the end of this week on Friday.
Next we turn to the pandemic and its unrelenting cruelty.
The world will soon mark five million deaths from this pandemic, knitting so many families of different backgrounds and beliefs into one common heartbreak.
But there are stories of hope of those who saw the worst around them and acted for the good of us all.
Their stories are told by 'Moneyball' author, Michael Lewis, in his latest book, 'The Premonition'. We spoke about it on this program back in May when the book was first published.
But less than three weeks later, tragedy struck Michael Lewis and his wife, Tabitha Soren, and their family.
Their 19-year-old daughter, Dixie, was killed in a car crash along with her boyfriend.
And Lewis is only lately ready to talk about it publicly, and he's joining me now from New York.
Michael Lewis, welcome back to this program.
And I'm just, with all our heart, we send our condolences and we are just so sorry for what's happened to your family and the loss of your daughter.
These months later, how are you coping?
How are you dealing with this grief amid so much grief that you write about, that you live in in our global situation right now?
- It wasn't my first thought or my second thought, or maybe even my 10th thought, but after Dixie died and I realized just like the effects of loss, I did connect it up what was going on in the country.
That we're surrounded by people who are going through similar things.
And, I don't think we're very good at loss.
I think we don't do grief well, and it has all these knock-on effects.
I mean, I was struck in the first place by just how exhausting it is, that you lose this child who you love more than anything in the world.
And your first reaction is just to just be tired all the time, like, where is that coming from?
And, I think where it's coming from is, we all move through the world with this reality in our head, and we sort of, we assume a few kind of future.
And when you have to rewrite that future, because of some trauma, I think that that, it just occupies a lot of your brain space.
The other thing that has struck me is that, when you have this kind of loss, and it's the first of its kind in my life, you're kind of admitted as a citizen, to the kingdom of grief.
And people around me, people quite close to me who had not kind of come forth with their own stories of loss and the loss they were living with, it was just grinding at them every day, started to offer them up kind of unbidden.
And it just, it's kind of amazing.
It's this hidden undercurrent.
And my takeaway, I mean, I've had a lot of thoughts about this, and it has been a gut-wrenching time.
But one takeaway is like, I'm gonna try as I go forward to keep in mind that I don't know what the other person is feeling and be a little more tolerant of those around me, because when you hold this kind of thing inside, you realize that it really does have a very warping effect on how you move through the world.
Dixie was, you know, 19 years old, a brave and delightful college student who died in a car accident.
It's not a COVID death, but it is, it is a moment in our country's history where I think there's a lot of kind of buried grief.
And I find myself a little bit more alive to it.
- Can I ask you, because clearly, you and your family are going through unbearable loss and no matter how much everybody else is in different lanes in their lives, this is about what happened to you and your family.
And you talked about the exhaustion.
I've heard that, I've heard grief-stricken families talk about exhaustion.
And you also talked about, you just said, we're not very good at death and grief.
So I want to ask you about another wonderful writer who I've had the opportunity to interview, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, she wrote 'Notes on Grief', and she's lost both her parents.
And it happened, some of it during COVID.
But she talked about the ritual of a Catholic mass in Nigeria for her father's death, because that's what they were, Catholics.
And then the Igbo, they were from the Igbo tribe of the public rituals of that taking place and how it was comforting and a way to express.
She said, 'I started to understand that there's a sense in which vocalizing pain in that kind of communal way can actually be comforting.'
And I wonder whether you've had the opportunity to do that in your own way.
- It's a really interesting observation because yes, the answer is yes, and there's a real truth in that to me.
Our way is, well, it's the same way, it's with community that when you suffer the loss of a child, I mean, in our... What happened with us is that there was this like submerged community of just connections of love.
They kind of like rose up and surrounded us and has been trying to take care of us in many ways.
And it does two things.
One is, I mean, it's nice to know other people care, but it's more than that.
It's, you realize that, we realized that, that the loss of Dixie isn't just our loss, that you see... I mean, I've been surprised by just how, how deeply it has struck other people who knew her, that you're aware that it isn't, you aren't alone in the loss.
And there is a loneliness to loss that is, it's soothed by company.
Now, having said that, the honest to God truth is that I have found that all relief is temporary.
That I wake up every morning thinking of her, and I go to bed every night thinking of her.
And it's really very difficult to get used to the idea of not having this child in my life and in the world.
So, I don't want to overstate, like how helpful ritual is or how helpful community is.
I think that there are limits.
And I also think that I've been struck by, and this may just be my own experience, but that nothing anybody has said exactly captures the reality of what I'm going through.
And I think it's because in each case, it's different, it's what your relationship was with this person, who this person was, who you are, how they died.
I think that how you process it, just how you're wired, I think that it's, there is a deep desire in people to basically go on a bus tour in life, to have a group of people to go through things with.
And I think it reaches its limits here and that at some point you're going through something basically alone, and that you have to acknowledge that you're gonna have to go through this in your own particular way.
And it is, and you can't grab a book off the shelf.
You can't grab a psychologist off the shelf, and they'll get you through that.
You have to kind of figure out how to get yourself through the thing.
And that's where I am.
I reserve the right to change my opinions on this every day, because, it's a volatile emotional state.
And I know six months from now, I may feel differently than I feel now.
But right now I just, I loved her and I miss her.
And I was so proud to be her dad.
- I was gonna say, you have every right to change your opinions, and yes, it's intensely personal.
And again, our hearts are with you and your family.
It happened as you were out promoting the first, well, the publication of 'The Premonition', which as we've said is about this global pandemic that has caused so much death, I mean, nearly five million people now we just said, as of today, have died over the course of this pandemic around the world.
And you decided to write 'The Premonition' about the early part of it, and you decided to focus not on all the havoc that was created, but of the great individuals who had so much premonition about what was coming and had they been listened to, could have made a material difference, particularly at the beginning.
So just starting with the fact that you point out both the USA, where we are now and the UK with the biggest resources, which should have come out of the gate the most successfully on this, in fact, didn't.
Start from there about 'The Premonition'. - All right, so the book is about, it is about people who tried to prepare, particularly in the United States for this event.
And who did end up preparing much of the world.
I mean, the strategy for dealing with a new pathogen before there is any kind of vaccine comes out of the Bush White House.
It's the work of a handful of doctors who actually not just kind of like thought about it, but went, kind of looked through history for, went back to 1918 to see what had happened and what had worked and what didn't work.
And they sold the public health community on this whole notion of social distancing.
And they so, they had enormous, they've saved untold lives.
Just not as many lives in the United States as they might've, if we'd embraced their strategies the way other countries did.
So the starting point for me, the end point of the book was always gonna be when these people who had tried to set us up for success, realized that we had failed.
And that was about June of last year.
And, there was this, I mean, really startling, but very stable statistic that kind of right from the beginning of the pandemic, right through to the moment vaccines were available, that the United States has fewer than 5% of the people on the planet.
And we had more than 20% of the deaths.
I mean, that is an incredible statement just by itself, because as you say, a pretty sophisticated panel of experts two years ago, sat down and tried to judge how relatively prepared different countries were for this sort of thing.
And they judged that the United States was the best prepared.
And it's a bit like, it reminded me of this, it's a bit like pre-season college football rankings.
That you have teams that have like all these star recruits, but year after year, when they actually have to play the game, it falls apart.
And it's a problem of not of talent, it's a problem of organizations.
And so I found myself looking at the beginning of this, of the pandemic for people who could explain it to me, just like teach me what had happened.
Why had we failed?
And it inevitably led me to these people.
That it led me to these people, in its way, very telling, because they weren't in the Centers for Disease Control, they weren't in the White House.
They weren't where they needed to be, that the kind of the wrong people were in the wrong place, much as they are on a football team that's badly managed.
- Well, yeah.
And, you have this amazing character Charity Dean, who I would like you to just flesh out a bit and had she been in the right place or a different place, things could have been very different.
And then you also point out George W. Bush, years ago had bought the book or a book on the 1918 flu pandemic.
And he kind of knew it, and there was a playbook and this country was prepared.
And yet it all seemed to crumble when it actually, actually came to roost here.
- Yeah, the story, the story of the US response starts with Bush post-Katrina, post 9/11 alive to the possibility that tragic accidents can and do happen, and we need to prepare for them even if they're remote possibilities is handed a book about, John Barry's book about history of the 1918 pandemic.
And he asked somebody like, what's the plan?
And he's told there isn't one really.
And he says, he goes, he's angry.
And he says, we're gonna create a plan.
And he in short order gets Congress to authorize $7 billion for the creation and promotion of a pandemic plan.
And it attracts, and what he does, what they do is actually really interesting.
And it's amazing this happened without anybody paying much attention to it.
They go to kind of seven relevant agencies, like the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, people who are gonna be involved in any kind of pandemic response, with the exception of the CDC.
And they say, send us your most original thinker, someone who actually is gonna come thinking about this problem differently.
And to this problem are attracted two doctors, Richard Hatchett, and Carter Mecher.
And they're just doctors, they're doctors who, they've been in the business of saving people's lives, who were in critical states.
And, they start to think about this problem, two years later, they have not only produced this plan that involves social distancing and, some selective closures of institutions in the event of a pandemic, but they have actually sold it to the world.
And so that's part of the story.
But the other part of story is as you point out, Charity Dean, and the trick, it's the trick of the book, I think, is that to take a character who is actually really important, but has low status.
A local public health officer.
And it makes her the main character.
Because the local public health officer should have been the main character in this story, that they are the people who are our battlefield commanders in disease control.
You haven't seen them or may not have thought you've seen them, but they're the ones who are controlling tuberculosis outbreaks or measles or meningitis or whatever it is.
And they actually know the conflicts that occur when you try to manage a communicable disease.
And we have that part of our society, we have underfunded and ignored for two generations.
It is not uncommon for them when they get new cases, and they're the source of all reporting new cases, in addition to control, that like they write them up and mail them to the CDC or fax them.
They're not even plugged in electronically.
- Well, Michael Lewis, it is a must-read, 'The Premonition' and thank you so much for joining us.
And again, our thoughts are with you and your family.
- Thank you.
- So staying with COVID, next to a journalist shining more light on what went right during the pandemic.
Greg Zuckerman is an investigative reporter with the Wall Street Journal.
And his new book, 'A Shot To Save The World' takes us behind the scenes of years of groundbreaking research that paved the way for the mRNA vaccines that we have today.
And here he is talking with Walter Isaacson about the little known scientists who created them.
- Thank you, Christiane, and Greg Zuckerman, welcome to the show.
- Great to be here.
- So a lot of people are afraid of this vaccine because it happened so fast, and it was this great miracle as you describe in the book.
But when you saw how fast it happened, did that reassure you, or did that make you more scared about this vaccine?
- Well, one of the goals of my book is to show that the evolution of these vaccine approaches; mRNA and the others I write about, is actually a really long and winding road going back decades.
And in some ways it's very reassuring.
The scientists, researchers, the investors, and the executives spent literally years and years working and improving and honing these approaches.
It was not an overnight success as one might think.
They weren't sure these approaches were ready on the eve of this great pandemic, but they had an inkling, they had a good idea and it turned out they were right.
But I think in some ways it's very reassuring that it took decades actually, not months or even weeks to get these vaccines really done.
- The messenger RNA vaccine, the mRNA, which is Pfizer and Moderna, those are the big breakthroughs.
Tell me about the early breakthroughs, including at the University of Pennsylvania that helped people figure out how do you use a messenger strand of RNA to build a low protein in our body that will act as a vaccine?
- Sure, so mRNA is a molecule and we all have it, and it sends the message to ourselves to create proteins, which we depend on.
We live thanks to these proteins on a daily basis.
So it made sense for scientists to say, well, what if in our lab, we could create some of these mRNA molecules.
So going back decades, and I go back to 1990, where there's a really interesting and groundbreaking pioneering scientist named John Wolf in Wisconsin, who does early work on creating these mRNA molecules in the lab.
And it's always sort of been the holy grail kind of thing amongst some in the world of science, what if we created these mRNA molecules to create something like a, you could see it as your own factory, your own body becomes the factory, creating any kind of medicine or vaccine that you want.
But they spent a long time on it, and as you suggest first, there was this John Wolf.
He sort of passed the baton as it were to a group at Duke.
And they in turn, passed it to a couple of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, Kariko and Weissman, pretty groundbreaking stuff.
And their work was really focused on getting this mRNA into the cell and not having the cells, the body's immune system fight it off.
And that took up, it was a process that really took years.
And they did a lot of impressive work, [indistinct] really interesting work.
And a lot of the goal of my book is to highlight some of this breakthrough, really impressive, crucial work done by scientists over the years.
And it took years and years to do it.
And now mRNA is on the threshold of both saving the world in terms of this virus, but also potentially taking on other diseases.
- You mentioned the researchers at the University of Pennsylvania who do groundbreaking work to be able to get the messenger RNA into our cells, and not be rejected.
But one of the interesting and controversial things in your book is they do not license their patent to Moderna.
So what happens when a company like Moderna wants to make an mRNA vaccine and they can't get a patent?
- Yeah, it's a real challenge.
And it was a real problem for Moderna.
Here they have a great idea, they're in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
They want to use these mRNA molecules to create them, to send messages to the body, to create vaccines and drugs.
And they can't because they can't get the license, can't get the intellectual property from UPenn.
UPenn has licensed it elsewhere and nothing really frankly ever came of that.
So they were stuck.
And it really came down to a really young scientist, one of their first hires at Moderna, the guy who doesn't really get much credit at all.
His name is Jason Schrum.
And he's laboring alone in the bowels of a laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
He figures out his own way to modify the chemical basis of mRNA, to make it such that the immune system doesn't reject it.
And it's groundbreaking breakthrough stuff, and he's never really gotten the credit.
And I shine a little light on it in the book, but I think he should get a lot of thanks from us all.
- Your book is filled with colorful characters.
One of the minor characters I love though, is I think Juan Andres, who was helping Moderna manufacture the vaccine.
We see him at the very beginning stockpiling toilet paper, and at the end of the book crying.
Tell me about him.
- Yeah, Juan Andres was a fascinating guy.
Really interesting, good guy.
He runs manufacturing at Moderna.
And in January of 2020, he started getting nervous both the things he read, and instincts kicked in.
He had been around the industry a little while.
He's not a scientist, but he's in the drug business.
And he started telling his personal family and suburban Boston, Hey, we have to start getting nervous, we have to start stocking up.
He started buying toilet paper.
He started buying paper towels.
He bought a third, we're talking, a third refrigerator.
And his family thought he was insane.
They thought he was nuts, they started laughing at him.
What are you crazy?
And because we all have those instincts, right?
Beginning of 2020.
Well, yeah, there's something in China, but we've all seen what happened to MERS, we all saw what happened to SARS.
They all kind of petered out.
So won't this do the same?
And his family thought it was the funniest thing in the world, and were making fun of him, mocking him.
But then sadly his own mother-in-law passed away of COVID about a month later.
And they like the rest of us, his family started realizing the seriousness of this.
And Juan Andres's heart is involved in this thing.
And frankly, the people at Moderna, many of them own shares, shares have soared, they've made a lot of money.
We all kind of say oh, big pharma and they're out for profits.
These people had put their heart and soul into creating vaccines to save the world.
And for as many people as they've saved, they beat themselves up about who they should have saved, how many more vaccines they could have made, how much more they could have done.
And on one hand, Juan Andres is very proud of what he's done and he should be.
But he feels he could have done more.
So in some ways they're emotionally shot, some of the people internally.
And they're trying to heal in some ways from this past year and it's nonstop.
And they were a relatively small company.
Now they're a household name, but they weren't a year ago.
So it's important to remember that, and I think to share some appreciation for some of the work that these people have done, including Juan.
- One of the heroes in your book is the guy at BioNTech who creates the vaccine that we now call the Pfizer vaccine in America, because they're distributing it.
But, Ugur Sahin, and he's an interesting character.
Tell me how he sort of becomes the winner in first getting mRNA to work as a vaccine.
- Yeah, Ugur Sahin is a fascinating guy, a lifelong cancer researcher.
Not really focused necessarily on diseases or like COVID, that kind of thing.
He always believed in the body's immune system.
He believed that there are ways to wake it up, to teach it, that maybe we haven't approached in the past.
And now he's dedicated his life to that.
And frankly, he started this company called BioNTech.
They weren't making that much progress on the surface to the outside world, but internally they were getting more excited about their approaches, including mRNA.
And he's just a really interesting guy.
He lives still with his wife who co-runs the company, who's also a cancer researcher.
They live in a little apartment in Mainz, Germany.
He bikes to work, he doesn't even own a car or a television.
He goes on vacations, and he lugs computers with him and scientific papers and bringing them to the pool.
And he needs that dedication, he demands that dedication from his own employees.
He and Stéphane Bancel from Moderna can be seen, and you would appreciate this, as a little bit Steve Jobs like, in that they demand a lot of dedication and they are quirky, interesting characters and sometimes genius results from that.
And one has to thank both of those characters.
- As I look at all the characters in your book, and I go through them, there's Katalin Kariko of the University of Pennsylvania, Noubar Afeyan who helped start Moderna, Stéphane Bancel as you talked about, is one of the leaders of Moderna.
And then Ugur Sahin, you can see where I'm going with this.
They're all immigrants, they're all fleeing oppression.
And they all, so many of them, almost every major character in your book it seems, has come to the US as an immigrant.
Why is that?
- It's a really great point.
They would argue that defecting needed to be made in America, or at least with the support of American investors.
And they could not have been made elsewhere.
So Ugur Sahin, Turkish immigrant to Germany, he lives in Germany still, the company is German.
And yet they did their IPO, their initial public offering in the United States.
They got a lot of their key investment money from the United States.
We in the United States still have the capital markets that biotech and other types of companies around the world turn to, depend on for crucial investment money.
But I also think that the theme is really important one to remind us all of those achievers often are immigrants who come to this country.
They strive, they are hungry, they focus on education often.
They are pretty impressive.
And as you said, you see the same thing, advisor to the CEO, Albert Bourla, the CEO of Pfizer who is also an immigrant to the United States time and time again, within the companies and scientists I write about as well, it is pretty striking, and impressive too.
- Yeah, the characters you've talked about, aren't all that famous, or weren't before this happened.
They weren't the premium, and they weren't the big drug companies like Merck.
One of the amazing things in your book is, why does Merck fail?
Why do these unknown people succeed?
- Yeah, Walter, I think that's one of the most interesting, at least to me themes from my book in that you would have expected the vaccine giants to have been the ones to create these vaccines to save the world.
And that's Merck, that's GSK, that's Sanofi.
Pfizer wasn't a vaccine player.
And these other companies, Moderna, BioNTech, this group in Oxford, this group up in Boston I write about that created the J&J vaccine, they were overlooked, they were sort of underappreciated, dismissed even by many in the world of science and elsewhere.
And part of the reason is that vaccines until this past year were seen as sort of a loser business in the world of pharma.
Merck, they are a big company and they weren't sure it was worth their while to chase that COVID vaccine.
There were people I write about in my book, who did want to chase it, and focus on it.
And historically Merck is the vaccine giant.
We depend on them for mumps and measles and other kinds of vaccines.
So there were researchers within Merck who pushed the company, and the executives and said, 'Hey, we're Merck, we should be the ones to develop a COVID vaccine.'
But others in the company said, we're doing so well with cancer and some other areas and they've really saved lives in other areas with cancer, drugs and such.
So they didn't wanna take their eye off the ball.
They'd seen what happened in the past with MERS and with SARS, and what it takes to get those vaccines made and how those viruses petered out.
And so there were some people within Merck who said it wasn't worth their while.
- What did we learn from the attempt to create an AIDS vaccine?
And by the way, why don't we have an AIDS vaccine?
That's just a virus as well.
- Yeah, so I start my book off writing about the chase for an HIV vaccine.
And I do so because it is instructive.
We have still never figured that one out.
The world's scientists have seen frustration after frustration.
But one of the approaches that was developed to fight HIV and develop a vaccine is the adenovirus approach.
And that is basically using a virus, a harmless virus to ferry in genetic information to the body, and to the cells, and to teach the immune system to fight off, they were trying to do HIV.
It didn't really work with HIV.
Merck spent years on it, and I write about what happened there, and it's kind of sad and it didn't work, and actually even essentially harmed.
But from that frustration came both the J&J and the AstraZeneca Oxford efforts, and those are successful effective vaccines.
It's a real lesson in some ways that scientific breakthroughs sometimes come from frustration.
And getting back to your point, HIV is so much more challenging and harder than other illnesses like COVID.
We all obviously have concerns about COVID and the R's that it's brought, but HIV as a disease, as a virus, it's changing all the time.
And it changes from one person to the next.
And our immune system needs so much help, and it's really has not been proven any way to help fight it off.
But some of my heroes in my book are working on HIV and they're not giving up.
And the perseverance and resilience that they show is pretty impressive.
So we're hoping over the next few years, maybe they can have some success there as well.
- How much credit should Operation Warped Speed led by another immigrant Moncef Slaoui under the Trump administration get for these vaccines having been created so quickly?
- I think we need to give a lot of credit to Operation Warp Speed.
The Trump administration didn't do a great job before Warp Speed in terms of initially reacting to the virus and its spread.
One can argue that the rollout wasn't done flawlessly both by the Trump administration, but also Biden administration at the beginning.
But Operation Warp Speed funneled money quickly to a lot of the companies.
It also did all kinds of really important work that hasn't really been focused on it in terms of logistics.
You need a part, you're a manufacturing plant, Moderna in Massachusetts, there are parts you needed.
They were able to close roads and ferry this kind of stuff, and over bridges and commandeer kind of trucks and such, and get the parts that were necessary.
So Operation Warp Speed was really helpful.
That said, sometimes, and I write about it in the book.
Sometimes it also threw a wrench into the plans at some of these companies, set them back, and met certain requirements, just like any bureaucracy.
They're gonna be bureaucratic ways that they slow things down, and there's a reason why Pfizer, yeah, they sold money.
I'm sorry, they sold vaccines to the government through Operation Warp Speed, but they didn't take money to develop, because they thought it would slow them down.
And I don't think it's coincidence that Pfizer and BioNTech are the first company to produce these vaccines.
It helped them that they didn't take money from Operation Warp Speed.
So net net, Warp Speed was very helpful for all the vaccine makers, but there were times when it slowed things down.
- What was the thing that most surprised you in doing this book?
Like the precarious way Moderna or Pfizer or BioNTech were, and how close of a call they had.
- I was surprised that as recently as the spring and even early summer of 2020, it wasn't clear whether Moderna was gonna be able to develop any vaccine whatsoever.
They had the technology, they had the approach, they had produced the vaccine, but in terms of manufacturing enough of the vaccines, the shots, they didn't have the money, and they were desperate for money.
And they went everywhere.
They went to the Gates Foundation, they went to nonprofits, they went to the government.
No one gave them money and they had to turn to Wall Street, which I kind of found interesting.
Big bad pharma linked up with big, bad Wall Street.
And they raised so much money that they could finally produce these vaccines.
So it could have gone any other way.
And it was very possible that Moderna wouldn't have been the one to produce these vaccines.
- You've written about Wall Street, you've written about hedge funds, you've written about government.
Now you've written about pharmaceuticals.
Is our system a wacky one or is it kind of a good one where a small company like Moderna has to hustle for money and maybe there's government supporting from basic research.
And finally, maybe they can go to Wall Street and get investors.
Is that an efficient and good way to do things?
- Walter, it's a little bit like Churchill said about democracy.
It's not the best system, but it beats all the others.
Yeah, there are a lot of investors out there, venture capital investors and others, to all investors like you and I who are ready to put money into companies with just on a promise, on the hope.
There's a little company I write about called Novavax, that I think is gonna be coming out very soon with a really effective COVID vaccine.
That stock was a dollar a share really recently going into 2020.
And yet there were some investors who believed.
So capitalism does get some credit for these COVID vaccines.
And for all the criticism, we have to give some appreciation.
- Greg Zuckerman, thank you so much for being with us.
- Oh, it was a lot of fun. Thank you all.
- A miracle of science indeed.
And finally, tonight, we return to the fight for racial justice.
One that this 82-year-old woman is not giving up on.
Claudette Colvin is filing a motion to clear her name of a conviction from all the way back in 1955.
That's when, age 15, she was arrested in Jim Crow, Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person.
More than 65 years later, she says she never committed a crime.
And the DA agrees saying that she had acted purely out of conscience.
Upon leaving court, she quipped.
- I'm 82 years old, and what it means that, I guess you could say that now, I'm no longer a juvenile delinquent.
[crowd laughing] - Recalling that day, Claudette Colvin says that she'd been thinking only of freedom and female heroes such as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman.
'I was not going to move that day,' she said.
'I told them that history had me glued to that seat.'
And on that note, that is it for our program tonight.
Remember, you can follow me and the show on Twitter.
Thanks for watching 'Amanpour & Company' on PBS and join us again tomorrow night.