How the Vaccines Were Created

Our Covid-19 vaccines were developed in record time: under a year after the virus first appeared. But the creative process extended back all the way to 2013, as revealed in a recent four-page story in The New York Times. The story starts in 2013 with Dr. Barney Graham, in Bethesda, Maryland, when another coronavirus emerged: the MERS virus. He decided to take a closer look, and that’s when a long, wandering, zig-zagging creative process began. A process with a lot of collaboration, with unexpected twists and turns, and with dead ends and restarts. In fact, the process was very similar to the creative process in all disciplines, as described in my 2013 book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. Here’s my favorite line from the article:

“On this unpredictable, zigzagging path, the science slowly built upon itself, squeezing knowledge from failure.”

Here are just a few of the most important steps in the iterative zigzagging process, as described with quotations from The New York Times article:

  • Dr. Graham’s choice to work on coronaviruses “was an impulse born more of convenience and curiosity than foresight.”
  • Each discovery connected “with other chance breakthroughs that seemed insignificant at the time.”
  • Even though we had vaccines in less than a year, “the breakthroughs behind the vaccines unfolded over decades, little by little.”
  • It was a collaborative process: “scientists across the world pursued research in disparate areas, never imagining their work would one day come together to tame the pandemic of the century.”
  • “Their experiments often failed.”

And, finally:

“The extraordinary tale proved the premise of basic scientific research: that once in a great while, old discoveries can be plucked from obscurity to make history.”

Thank you to reporters Gina Kolata and Benjamin Mueller who brought us this fascinating story of the iterative, wandering, zigzagging creative process–the same process that’s behind all creativity.

Gina Kolata and Benjamin Mueller, 2012, “Decades of discoveries before ‘miraculous’ spring to a vaccine.” The New York Times, January 16, 2012, pages A1, A13-A15.

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