CNN Films & BBC Announce Production of Documentary Following Scientific Journey to COVID-19 Vaccines for Premiere in Spring 2021

CNN Films and BBC announced today the joint commission of a feature documentary film following the unprecedented global quest to develop, trial, manufacture, and distribute effective vaccines to fight the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. RACE FOR THE VACCINE on CNN in the U.S., and the same film under the working title VACCINE: THE INSIDE STORY on BBC Two in the U.K., is rooted in extraordinary access during 2020 to the leading vaccine research teams around the world, including scientists behind the Pfizer/BioNTech, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) /Moderna, and the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccines in development. The film will be produced and directed by award-winning British filmmaker and former virologist Catherine Gale (The Joy of Winning), and co-directed by award-winning American medical journalist and independent filmmaker Caleb Hellerman. Executive producers are Janet Tobias (Unseen Enemy) and Rogger Lopez (Memory Games) of Global Health Reporting Center (GHRC); Archie Baron (Motherland – A Genetic Journey) of Wingspan Productions; Amy Entelis, Katie Hinman, and Courtney Sexton of CNN Films; Tom Coveney of BBC; Sean B. Carroll and Jared Lipworth of Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Tangled Bank Studios. The film has also been supported by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

CNN Films has retained linear television rights throughout the United States and territories as well as Canada for RACE FOR THE VACCINE. In the U.K., the film will broadcast as a Horizon Special, VACCINE: THE INSIDE STORY on BBC Two. HHMI Tangled Bank Studios holds the educational rights. GHRC and Wingspan Productions retain rights outside of the U.K. and North America. 

How pandemics end depends so much on how they begin, so I wanted to tell the story of the scientists who were ready and waiting for COVID-19. The story of their race against time to develop vaccines, and the lessons we take from it, will shape the future for us all, so it’s never been more important that we dive into their world. I’ve been truly inspired by them,” said producer / director Gale.

“This pandemic is a global catastrophe. But, we saw right away that, even as many leaders were failing us, these scientists were stepping up. This is the story of a handful of people, under incredible pressure, with the fate of the world in their hands,” said co-director Hellerman.

CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, MD, a producer for RACE FOR THE VACCINE, will also narrate the North American broadcast. “The search for a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19 is the essential human advancement for 2020, if not for this generation,” said Dr. Gupta, on behalf of CNN Films. “Catherine Gale and Caleb Hellerman bring a vital mix of reverence for the scientific discovery process, and a fluency of film language, to make this critical story both compelling and accessible to all,” he said.

Jack Bootle, BBC Head of Commissioning, science and natural history said, “it is an incredible privilege to be able to bring BBC Two viewers the inside story of the biggest scientific breakthrough of the 21st Century; a moment in medical history that we will remember forever. With extraordinary access to the amazing women and men inside the world’s leading laboratories, Wingspan and their partners are making a film that everyone will need to see.”

When news of the novel coronavirus pandemic broke, most people were trying to learn how to survive the looming months. A small group of elite scientists around the globe launched into action to take on perhaps the biggest challenge in the history of modern medicine. The scope and speed of this effort has been unprecedented: producing multiple vaccines using different novel technologies, to neutralize a virus never seen before in humans. RACE FOR THE VACCINE (on CNN) / VACCINE: THE INSIDE STORY (on BBC Two) also explores an emotional journey for its key characters, giving viewers insight into the ground-breaking discoveries, grueling endeavor, and personal sacrifices that led to this extraordinary moment of public health triumph. 

The film tracks key individuals from these and other vaccine teams in the U.S., Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia, following scientists, clinicians, and manufacturing experts through the struggles and triumphs of their work, from recruiting trial subjects and inventing new supply chains, to facing down political pressures to speed up science and potentially sacrifice safety. The film also explores the contributions of the vaccine trial volunteers who have put their bodies on the line to make this medical progress possible. 

The filmmakers established rare access to researchers and developers behind several of the principal COVID-19 candidate vaccines, including three of the first to make it through human clinical trials and offer real hope for controlling the virus. Among those to allow the documentary teams to film their work is the Pfizer/BioNTech candidate vaccine, the first to cross the ‘finish line’ with a candidate based upon novel mRNA technology. The Pfizer candidate vaccine, stored at -70 degrees Celsius (-94 degrees Fahrenheit), is reported to be 95 percent effective at protecting people from COVID-19 in a massive clinical trial. Also featured are top scientists from the U.S. NIH, who worked with Moderna to develop one of the vaccines supported by the U.S. government-led Operation Warp Speed initiative. That vaccine candidate remains stable at -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit) for up to six months, at refrigerated conditions for up to 30 days, and at room temperature for up to 12 hours. The film also follows the group from Oxford University, whose vector-borne approach is the basis for the low-cost AstraZeneca vaccine that can be stored and transported with relatively simple refrigeration storage, avoiding the need for a more complex cold supply chain. And, the film also chronicles the work of the team from the University of Queensland in Australia, who have developed a novel protein subunit candidate vaccine.

“We’re proud to work with this talented team of storytellers to shine a light on the scientists behind one of the most important public health breakthroughs of our modern history,” said Head of HHMI Tangled Bank Studios, Carroll. “We think it’s more important than ever for the public to understand the people and the process driving this herculean quest to save lives,” he said.

The deal announced today was negotiated by Kirstie McLure of The Televators, on behalf of Wingspan Productions and GHRC, and by Stacey Wolf, senior vice president of business affairs, and Kelly MacLanahan, assistant general counsel, both of CNN Worldwide, on behalf of CNN Films. 

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About CNN Films

CNN Films produces and acquires documentary feature and short films for theatrical and festival exhibition and distribution across CNN’s multiple platforms. Amy Entelis, executive vice president of talent and content development, oversees the strategy for CNN Films; Courtney Sexton, senior vice president for CNN Films, works day-to-day with filmmakers to oversee projects. For more information about CNN Films, please visit and follow @CNNFilms via Twitter.  Recent acclaimed CNN Films include the Academy Award®-nominated and Emmy® Award-winning RBG, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen; Emmy® Award-nominated LOVE, GILDA, directed by Lisa D’Apolito; the Emmy® Award-nominated Three Identical Strangers, directed by Tim Wardle; and the Emmy® Award-winning APOLLO 11, directed by Todd Douglas Miller.

About BBC / Horizon

Horizon is BBC Two’s blue chip science strand, bringing audiences the best cutting edge science stories from around the world since 1964.  

About HHMI Tangled Bank Studios

HHMI Tangled Bank Studios is a mission-driven production company that crafts exceptional films about science and scientists for broadcast, theatrical, and digital distribution.  As storytellers within a world-class science organization, we are uniquely positioned to shine a light on some of the most significant scientific breakthroughs of our time – and, explain why they matter.  Recent films include The Serengeti Rules, which won an Emmy® Award for outstanding nature documentary; Ric Burns’ Oliver Sacks: His Own Life; The Farthest: Voyager in Space, which won an Emmy® Award for outstanding science documentary; and, the Peabody Award-winning Inventing Tomorrow, which premiered at Sundance and aired on PBS/POV.  For more information, please visit

About the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

Founded by Dr. Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg in 2015, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) is a new kind of philanthropy that’s leveraging technology to help solve some of the world’s toughest challenges — from eradicating disease, to improving education, to reforming the criminal justice system. Across three core Initiative focus areas of Science, Education, and Justice & Opportunity, we’re pairing engineering with grant-making, impact investing, and policy and advocacy work to help build an inclusive, just and healthy future for everyone. For more information, please visit

About Wingspan Productions

Wingspan Productions is one of Britain’s most respected independent production companies, dedicated to rigorous journalism and engaging storytelling. Founded by Archie Baron, Wingspan has earned a reputation for award-winning television that is intelligent, ambitious, and innovative, as well as highly entertaining.  With productions ranging from blue-chip science and landmark history to popular travelogue, arts, and music, Wingspan repeatedly delivers creative excellence across the genres to all the major U.K. broadcasters and many international partners. Award-winning Wingspan productions include Our Gay Wedding: The Musical; The Joy of Stats; Computer Says Show, and Don’t Panic: The Truth about Population.  For more information, please visit

About GHRC

The Global Health Reporting Center is an independent non-profit newsroom that produces in-depth health journalism. We dig deep into the important health issues of our time, producing an omnichannel range of content. Our coverage encompasses a wide variety of subjects including Aging, Cancer, Changing Planet, Diabetes, Health Workers and Health Systems, HIV/TB/Malaria, Mental Health, Pandemic Preparedness, Rumors and Misinformation, Stroke, and Violence & Health. Our goal is to improve health outcomes using the power of journalism.