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 documentary 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 film 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 in just 6 weeks. You can also read the transcript of this episode below the credits.
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. I know it’s an arrogant-sounding title, given to me by [Laughs] the station. But there’s no question that we have a great person to talk to about the pandemic. She’s, first of all, not only got a history of doing very good science-related reporting, and this one is made for NOVA, which is unquestionably the best television documentary series, station–it’s done for WGBH in Boston, and it’s called “Decoding COVID-19.” And you have to go see it, you have to watch it. And I did last night, and it produced my first question right now.
It’s incredibly powerful. It begins with the epidemic in China, it goes through the world. We see the harsh reality and the battle of scientists. And I went to bed last night enormously depressed that, you know, maybe we’re not going to get on top of this. And the scientists are great, they’re heroic, and so forth. But you know, this is–I don’t know, is it, ah–is it unsolvable? And I woke up this morning to rather cheerful news. And this is the day on which it was announced in Cambridge that they may have a new vaccine, and that’s actually succeeded in, I guess, eight people so far, to produce antibodies and so forth. At the same time, it’s the day on which the World Health Organization was meeting, and the Chinese leader spoke and said, yes, he wants to have an investigation of how it started. He also pledged $2 billion for Africa, which is as we speak right now, very hard hit; so was Brazil. So the pandemic is by no means over.
I want to begin, basically, with those two points. Is this–unquestionably, it’s among the worst of times in our modern history. But it is also a hopeful time, in the sense that at least nations are cooperating, at least we’re spending resources on [it]. So what is your basic take, building on the insight you got from the movie?
SH: Well, I’m sorry if you went to bed feeling discouraged. Because a lot of people would say to me, it must be so depressing working on a film on COVID-19. And 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. And the news today about the Moderna vaccine, yes, it’s only eight people. But they all developed the right type of antibodies to fight the virus, the right level of antibodies to fight the virus. And it was–and everyone seemed to have no safety issues. So for me, that was hugely encouraging news.
RS: Yeah, and by the way, I don’t want to indicate that your excellent documentary–which I hope goes on to win all sorts of awards, deservedly–was depressing. Overall, the subject is depressing, you know. And, no, it had an inherently very optimistic view about human beings working together. And it didn’t demonize anyone, and it talked about the sacrifice of all the scientists and medical workers, and ordinary people and so forth.
But you know, it does make it quite clear: we haven’t faced a problem of this dimension. At least, we in the United States; maybe if we were in parts of Africa or China during different pandemics. But you know, going back, as the president points out, maybe back to 1918 or something. And it has impressed us with our vulnerability, and it really has challenged the sort of notion of the exceptionalism of America and its ability with technology to solve everything. We’ve already got over 90,000 fatalities, and that’s really quite a marker. And I guess, you know, the film captures that. This is of an order, I think you would agree, that we really haven’t quite experienced, at least in the United States. Is that incorrect, or–?
SH: No, I actually think you’re absolutely correct. And I mean, the 1918 flu epidemic, most of us barely are even aware of or remember. And you know, I think that all of us felt like modern medicine had made such progress. That surely–you know, we saw SARS break out in 2002, 2003; it didn’t go very far. Neither did MERS. And so we were aware that new viruses were emerging, but they seemed to somewhat fizzle out. The Ebola epidemic outbreak was contained, even though it took a huge number of lives.
But this has been quite sobering to watch. And it is a virus that we will be living with for some time. 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 just to get it deployed, to scale up a vaccine and get it deployed to people around the world. And the Moderna vaccine is a special type of vaccine made from RNA, and it’s highly unstable; 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, you know, so cold.
RS: Yeah. And you know, I–my own son Peter was in the middle of the whole SARS breakout as an exchange student in Hong Kong. And as a parent I really–I remember at the time feeling: well, just come home. I didn’t have the idea it would spread, I didn’t have the idea it would happen in a first-world, incredibly affluent society. And he actually corrected me. He said, no, he thought they were doing a good job, and he was following the advice he was getting, and so forth.
And there has been a certain cultural arrogance to this. I don’t want to make this an over-politicized discussion, but certainly President Trump has stressed it’s a “Chinese virus,” and brings up wartime analogies. And now there’s the other news today, of course, is a World Health Organization meeting, and China said that they will commit to a serious investigation.
You begin your documentary in Wuhan. What insight can you give us about the origin there, the openness of the Chinese leadership? Could you take us just back to the beginning?
SH: Well, we did start in Wuhan; I think the origin of the virus is still unknown. I don’t think people do think it came from a lab; I know that’s a theory that’s been widely spread. You know, it seemed to be circulating in the wet market there, but it probably was circulating in animals and affecting people outside of that wet market. I just think people don’t know right now about the origin.
We went back to Wuhan because we wanted to be there when the city opened up. 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. He now–he began donating his plasma to help other people that were sick. And he was there when the city opened up, and 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. But it shows you that the Chinese are really serious on trying to isolate individuals and avoid shutting down an entire society.
RS: Yeah, and it’s interesting. At first the Chinese model was, you know, put down; you know, of course, they’re a totalitarian society, and they can do this overreach, and it was sort of dismissed as overreach. But it actually has been a model for much of the world. And it now is, you know, we’ve gone from thinking of the surveillance society as negative, you know, Orwellian; now, it’s part of the lingo about the way you deal with the crisis. Surveillance medicine, knowing everything about our movements, and who we eat with. And that’s captured in your documentary, and we welcome it. And that’s an interesting turnaround which I think your film explores.
SH: Yeah, I mean, I hope that we can do it a little bit more humanely. I mean, you clearly saw–we weren’t able to include it, but I would see news footage of individuals that had tested positive just being forcibly, you know, shoved into vans that would take them far away from their families. And, you know, under forced quarantine that seemed really a little bit draconian. But I do think in this society, until we get a vaccine, what can we control is our behavior. And we definitely need to be ramping up our testing and ability to test people, and to trace their contacts, and to quarantine the people that are infected, to try to slow the spread of this virus.
RS: Yeah, and I think what your film captures is that we’re all in the same lifeboat here. Or the cruise ship is a better analogy. It didn’t matter whether you had the fanciest cabin in the cruise boat, or you were working in the kitchen; you know, you’re sharing the same fate, and the same virus, eventually. And you had that in the depiction of Wuhan. People–you know, maybe they define freedom as consumer sovereignty, as shopping, as you know, choice in what they want. But when they had the opportunity to go shopping, it wasn’t with quite the same frenzy. It wasn’t quite as liberating in that way.
SH: I think people are still worried. And you know, you definitely saw when the city opened up that people were social distancing. They were wearing masks, and they were being quite careful. I mean, even the young man we followed–he’s a COVID survivor. You know, he probably has immunity at least for a short term, but he knows if he gets exposed, whether he’s a survivor or not, he’ll be facing another two-week quarantine.
RS: Yeah, but it also changes our–I know, I teach in a college, and I chide the students for defining freedom largely in terms of the convenience of shopping, or the alternatives, and willing to surrender their privacy for the convenience of more effective shopping. But that young man, he seemed–properly so; he’d been through this harrowing experience as a survivor–and you could see that he wasn’t going to get off on the same notion of freedom of as shopping. That there were other things: family, concern for your loved ones, for your community. There was a notion of security that he wanted now. And that’s really kind of been the big shock of all this: that we are vulnerable.
RS: Well, tell me more about it. Because I think that’s the strength of your film. We’re meeting people in the midst of wartime, and it changes their outlook.
SH: I mean, one of my favorite stories in the film was the Brown family in Queens. I was quite touched by the palliative care doctor Alice Beal, who helped that family find a way to say goodbye to their 73-year-old grandfather. You know, she prided herself on never letting a patient die alone, and here she’s faced with the COVID epidemic of patients that are intubated on ventilators, their family can’t come in and be with them, and they’re dying. And she was able to pipe in their goodbye over the intercom.
And amazingly, the grandson in that family was an EMT, New York City EMT, Matthew Lebow. And I found his stories of, you know, being out on the streets of New York City and feeling so overwhelmed because patients were being sent home diagnosed with COVID, and they were going into cardiac arrest in their homes, and the EMTs would show up and it was too late. Or if they could take people to the hospitals, they’d be waiting for hours before there would be a bed available. And I felt like it was really important for–to try to put that on television, so people could see if we all get sick at once, we can overwhelm our health care system.
RS: Well, but it also seemed–you know, I love that story of the Queens family. First of all, it’s great to be reminded we can have large, you know, intact families. You know, sort of–I grew up in New York; it reminded me of the big family dinners and everything. And you know, the real great–you know, one of the problems we have now is that this is affecting older people who are more vulnerable. And then there’s even some thinning-of-the-herd theories. And this was a family that really worshiped the grandfather. I mean, they honored him. He was central, and suddenly he’s going to be ripped out of this. And they could not talk about him without crying.
RS: It was really quite moving, and a sense of loss. And that, you know, whatever security they had or whatever–that wasn’t going to cut it. That–the vulnerability, the fact that, you know, we–we are mortal. And a couple of your films in your work have dealt with this sort of threat to the perception of human existence. It’s, you know, whether it’s superbugs, or this one, or saving people who are on an excursion or what have you, you’re up against this–something that we tend to deny in our every moment. It’s always about career, or economic security, or consumption. And this pandemic reminds us of the frailty of the human experience.
SH: You know, Dr. Osterholm, who we interviewed in the film, said to me at one point–and I don’t think I was able to include it–he was talking about, as we try to figure out the number of fatalities we might have if, you know, if we lock down, if we lift the lock-down. And he said, you know, these people–they’re our grandparents, they’re our colleagues, they’re our neighbors; they’re real people. And that’s what I loved about the Browns’ story, was that George was a real person, and you could see how active he was in his children’s lives. You know, not missing a single basketball game, or you know, going on every outing with these kids; a real part of their lives. So I think it’s easy just to say it’s a number, but in fact they’re real people, and missed by, you know, the families around them.
RS: Yeah, and the other thing that comes out in your depiction, it’s not so different being in Wuhan or being in New York City. That we all have the same fears, our governments have the same confusion, they struggle with the same kinds of problems. And there was a common message in this. That–I hate to say that a pandemic is enlightening, but it really has shocked the major conceit of modern existence: that with the right job, with the right money, with the right connections, and if you’re in a first-world country, or if you’re in an emerging, successful country like China, that somehow that will define the meaning of your life. And suddenly the very reality of your life is being challenged.
SH: Well, I think Nahid Bhadelia said it in our interview: we are connected. You know, a pandemic can be an airplane flight away; what happens in one country could, you know, is headed towards our own country. And this virus is now in 50 countries around the world. So, you know, she really made the argument that you have to care about what happens in other countries. And we need to have a much stronger world health system, so if an outbreak does emerge–you know, I think we now understand how important it is to try to isolate it and contain it before it spreads around the globe.
RS: Well that is, for my mind, one of the powerful messages in your film. Because it’s not just a super-dangerous virus or a superbug or something; it’s that we live in a multinational world. We are so interconnected, you really can’t put up walls. I mean, that has been the big shock here, is how rapidly–how there’s no such thing. Yes, you can wall it off if you act collectively, internationally, with transparency, and let science decide, and you know–but otherwise, your just putting up customs barriers won’t work anymore. That is really what is different about this pandemic, isn’t it?
SH: Well, I mean, first of all, we have to realize we’re dealing with a pathogen that’s spread by the air we breathe. You know, that can live for up to three days on the surfaces we touch. And so one of the montages we put in the film was just when you begin to see the movement of people across this planet–the elevators, the escalators, the airplanes, the trains–I mean, and the fact that this virus was carried by people who didn’t know they were infectious. It was most contagious before people got sick, and that’s so different from Ebola or SARS or MERS. So people were spreading the virus and not knowing they were sick. And that’s–and it was also, you know, carried by the air we breathe. So two really, really difficult things that made this virus, you know, wreak such havoc.
RS: Yeah, but I do want to stress at least your–I should say, by the way, I’m talking to Sarah Holt, one of our great documentary filmmakers. This was made for NOVA, and for WGBH, the great PBS station in Boston, maybe the most creative one for this kind of documentary. And Sarah Holt is the writer, producer, and director of really this compelling documentary, decoding the virus and what’s been done about it.
But I do want to stress, at least for me–what the documentary got at, to me, was that we’re all in on it. There are no walls. And I just–that’s why I brought up the SARS epidemic. I remember when my own son was studying in Hong Kong, there was a feeling–oh, well, just get away, it won’t chase you. And he did, he went off to Korea at some point, because his school closed down and he was safer in Korea. Well, that wouldn’t be the case now. We’re just too interconnected. And as you point out, the viruses are different.
And we should talk a little bit about that. Because this is no longer just a reason to say, yes, let’s have the World Health Organization, let’s have the UN–we have to work at these things. As I said before, today the leader of China, instead of taking a xenophobic attitude, or our way or the highway, said no–I have to worry about Africa, and I have to allocate money for Africa, and I have to agree to transparency. And I think that’s one of the things that’s coming out of this pandemic, and I think your film gets that across.
SH: You know, people had been warning ever since the 1918 flu epidemic that we were at risk for another pandemic. And you know, every few years we’re seeing new viruses arise, whether it’s Ebola or Zika, MERS or SARS. And people were waiting for a pathogen that would be airborne and, you know, highly contagious, and that’s what the coronavirus is.
I would just like to say one thing, though. This film was made in six weeks. You know, normally on a NOVA, you have 12 weeks just to research a subject; you have nine months to make a show. So even though I am the writer, producer, director, it took a team: executive producer Chris Schmidt, Julia Cort; there were four co-producers, there were three editors, there were fact-checkers. And so it was really an incredible effort. And when they first asked me to get a show on the air, I didn’t think we could do it in six weeks. And they said, we will help you. So it was really a team effort. Just like the scientists that I was seeing out in the world collaborating, everyone at NOVA came together to help get this show on the air.
RS: Well, let’s give a plug for NOVA. Tell me about the world of the documentary filmmaker. Because there’s a power to the documentary that we tend to forget, and which anyone watching this film will get it. It goes beyond the news clips. Yeah, we see people being wheeled into emergency rooms, but you’re able to provide context. It’s thoughtful, it is respectful of the science, it’s educational. Not to damn it with praise, but it’s highly educational. It’s a one-hour primer on what’s going on, the very thing we’re not getting from watching endless, you know, cable television or whatever, you know, and endless debates and arguments. There’s a clarity to it. And you know, so just, what’s the story with documentaries now, and NOVA?
SH: I feel incredibly privileged when I get to produce a NOVA. I mean, NOVA sees science as this powerful human intervention that helps us decipher the physical world, but also find solutions for some of our biggest challenges, whether it’s climate change or opioid addiction or this mysterious, lethal pathogen. So we too–this film is a scientific investigation into this novel coronavirus.
You know, I don’t think people understand there are more viruses in our world than there are stars in the universe. Luckily, most of them are harmless. We have viral remnants scattered throughout our DNA. One scientist said to me, you know, we’re part virus. We have viruses that live on our skin, that attack bacteria that might be trying to invade us. We have viruses living in our microbiome. So the viruses that are dangerous are the ones that jump from animals into humans, that we haven’t encountered before. So this is a novel virus. It’s not new to the world, but it was new to us.
So the show looks at viruses, how they infect ourselves, how our immune system responds. It looks at, you know, how we try to develop antibodies, which are proteins that can detect an invader and stick to that invader, and call in the immune cells to, you know, destroy these invaders. And then the whole science behind vaccines and how they work, trying to help us develop antibodies to the pathogen. So there’s a science story that’s woven throughout the story of what happened in China, the story of, you know, medical workers and EMT workers on the front lines.
And then we also look at, you know, people trying to develop antiviral drugs as well, and then people that are just studying antibodies. Because everybody wants to know, if you’ve been exposed and you’ve developed antibodies, will you be immune? And we really don’t know. I mean, there’s the coronavirus head cold that you can get, and you’re only immune for a year. I think when you got SARS, you were immune for two years. So we have to study these antibodies to find out, if you get sick with the coronavirus and develop the right kind of antibody, how long will they protect you.
RS: So even the vaccine that–as I said, we’re having this conversation on the morning when the World Health Organization is meeting. And also when there’s, for once, some cheerful news about developing a vaccine; we’re probably still, what, at least a half a year away from it, even if at all works out, being able to distribute it. And as you point out, it’s a vulnerable vaccine that has to be kept under very special conditions. But you’re now sort of dampening that by saying even the vaccine might have limited–might necessarily not be like the smallpox.
SH: Well, so you may need to get booster vaccines. I mean, if you get measles, you have immunity for life. If you get a measles vaccine, you don’t have to get another one. But this could be a vaccine you may have to get every two years. I think there’s just so much we’re learning every day. Every day I open up the newspaper or open up my computer, and there are new things that we’re discovering. So it’s, you know, it doesn’t mean that a vaccine isn’t going to be useful. It just means you may have to get a booster vaccine. Just like we get a yearly flu shot. You know, we may need to be getting, you know, a yearly or every two years of a new vaccine for the coronavirus.
RS: Yeah. So you know, as we wrap this up, let me editorialize a little bit here. What I loved about watching this film, it was for me like–after all, you know, watching all this stuff, I’m trapped like most people in my place, you know, my apartment. And I’m inundated with alarmist sentiments of one kind or other, and over-politicizing and scoring points.
And it was like taking a refreshing, cool bath, watching your documentary. I didn’t feel assaulted, I didn’t feel manipulated, I didn’t feel I was being sold one line or another. And I actually was experiencing science at its purest, in a journalistic form. And I know that sounds like I’m just being, puffing it all up, but I really felt that. I felt liberated by your documentary. And you know, what it really reminded me of is the value of logic, fact, real news. And I would blame–you know, I’m not going to segue into an attack on our president and his talk about the invisible enemy, and the Chinese virus, and his overpromises. Because you get it from all sides. And you get it from the sensationalism, and why don’t we have enough masks, and what about this, and who failed that.
And again, I want to get back to the value of the documentary as a form of journalism. I know in my own teaching at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, I show documentaries all the time. They seem to me–ah, Inside Job on the banking meltdown, Fog of War on what happened in Vietnam and so forth, go right through the whole thing. I wanted you to talk about your art form in relation to this. Because it seems to me you’ve provided a really important alternative way of teaching, of learning about something that is so contentious right now.
SH: You know, I think for me, I feel like I’m a facilitator. I try to find the people that I think are doing the most important work, and get them on the air and let them speak for themselves. I’m really, I’m not–compared to those scientists, I’m not an expert. But I feel like that I was able to find some of the people that I think are doing the most important work right now, and I gave them time on national television. And I let people spend time with them and get a sense of the experiments and the studies they’re doing, and hear them. And to me, I feel like my job is to bring out the best of those people, and to get it on the air. And also even like, for instance, you know, the doctors on the front lines, the fact that that palliative care doctor found a way to allow the family to say goodbye and have closure. So I just feel like that I’m kind of in service to something that’s much bigger than me.
RS: Well, and that certainly is the well-deserved reputation of NOVA and the Boston PBS station WGBH. You know, I don’t know how they do it, but it seems to me they hold up real well for decades doing consistent, great journalism. I want to thank you. I’ve been talking to Sarah Holt, who’s made a really incredible movie. And you know, it’ll be–the good thing about the internet, I’ve discovered you don’t need the special code to get it, right? And anybody who wants to see “Decoding COVID-19,” I’m sure you can find it fairly easily. And by the way, I don’t want to give a plug, but it’s probably a good reason to support [Laughter] public television and radio, because they get the stuff out there.
And Sarah Holt is–you’re being modest, I think, because your record shows that being the writer, producer, and director, you probably had a great deal of being able to make this. Really, right now, it’s the most significant thing one can look at in terms of this pandemic. It’s cool, it’s rational, it’s moving. But it doesn’t keep slapping you in the face in trying to present an alternative message.
But that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. Our producer at KCRW is Christopher Ho, who does a great job there. Natasha Hakimi Zapata writes the intros for these. And Joshua Scheer, as usual, is our producer and set this all up, and I want to thank him. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. Thank you.