While Borrell devotes attention to the efforts of the vaccine-makers, the lion’s share of The First Shots depicts the chaos of the U.S. government’s attempts both to curtail and to downplay the impact of the pandemic. However, to get to the dramatic, fast-moving tale of the outbreak response and vaccine development, readers must first wade through some complex early sections that make for fairly dense reading for a nonscientific audience. For example, while discussing a string of letters in the coronavirus’s nearly 30,000-letter genetic code, Borrell offers readers a sample of how the string of code began and lists 197 characters that span six lines. Two pages later, he includes 32 lines of hundreds of letters of code that, for laypeople, bog down otherwise crisp prose ... is at its best when it’s dishing on political and turf wars and the uneven federal response to the pandemic, highlighted by the Hunger Games-esque competition among states for necessary supplies, and the lack of federal guidelines and high-level role-modeling for the wearing of masks ... Borrell deftly contrasts the sincerity that career public health servants bring to their duty to protect the public’s well-being with the cynicism of some Trump administration officials who rejected the experts’ advice if it risked political damage to the president ... If you’re looking for a brisk telling of the U.S. reaction to the pandemic alongside the pursuit of a vaccine — including the volatile clashes between political appointees and public health experts — you may find Borrell’s The First Shots more readable, once you get past all the genetic coding.
The title is misleading. Borrell doesn’t only offer an inside look at the warp-speed vaccine-development process and rollout but also the government’s struggles over mask policy and the release of statistics while its own quarterback, ex-President Donald Trump, was running interference on his team ... Borrell had great access inside the Trump administration, and there are juicy details here. But his effort to make the pandemic-response story read like a cross between a Marvel movie and a police procedural falls flat ... Long ago, The First Shots was optioned by HBO, and it’s not clear if readers were the intended audience or TV producers.
Borrell’s book shines in his absorbing account of how, against the odds, the government-backed public–private vaccine-development plan — Operation Warp Speed — arose from the primordial sludge of pandemic policymaking inside the Trump White House ... t is in covering these global angles that First Shots comes up short. Borrell’s stateside characters, such as Michael Callahan, a US doctor who travelled to Wuhan in mid-January to witness the devastation in the local hospitals, or vaccine designer and public-engagement star Kizzmekia Corbett are well-drawn and metaphorically square-jawed. That the rights to the book were sold to television channel HBO in July 2020 might have coloured the way the story is told. British scientists, for example, appear as a 'standoffish bunch'.
Clashes of egos and the potential prestige and profits involved in being the first to succeed produce a story that reads like a thriller. Inside sources reveal missteps, reversals, conflicts, disappointments and triumphs as career officials and scientists work sometimes in tandem with each other, politicians, and the White House, and sometimes in conflict ... Relying on extensive firsthand sources, Borrell has produced a readable and detailed early account of developing and implementing vaccines.
Borrell delivers a vivid portrait of the combination of drudgery, greed, legerdemain, and brilliance that made the vaccines a reality in record time ... Borrell offers a meticulous, thrilling account of the testing process ... most Covid books emphasize chaotic, self-serving politics and the pandemic’s devastation, a dismal one-two punch. Borrell does not ignore ignorant or apathetic leaders, but by concentrating on the vaccines, he tells a story with a happy ending—at least as of May 2021, when his account ends. Drawing on extensive interviews, the author uncovers heroes and villains, works hard, if not always successfully, to explain virology and vaccine technology for a lay readership, and excels in recounting the cutthroat pharmaceutical world in which the process of developing a vaccine can bring riches or bankruptcy ... An exciting, readable exploration of an extraordinary scientific breakthrough.
... powerful ... Borrell’s granular account reveals the inspiring work of scientists, who despite the holdups, succeeded 'in spite of the politics at the time,' and were 'a testament to the grit and ingenuity of the American people.' The result is a page-turning introduction to a key part of the pandemic.