Lisa Ling Takes the Public Inside One Pharma Company’s Hunt for a COVID-19 Vaccine

The CNN journo talks about her new live web series and her lockdown life in L.A.

As Big Pharma races to roll out a COVID-19 vaccine, health care behemoth Johnson & Johnson has enlisted CNN journalist Lisa Ling to take the public inside its process—live.

On Tuesdays beginning today, Ling will host The Road to a Vaccine, an eight-part live series presented on the corporation’s website and social channels. Last month Johnson & Johnson announced a joint effort with the federal government to bet $1 billion on a substance the company expects to go to clinical trials in the fall.

Ling spoke to Los Angeles about what she hopes the series can accomplish, why she took it on, and how she’s dealing with being locked down like every other Angeleno.

What drew you to this project?

J&J asked me to host an eight-week series that goes behind the scenes and essentially explains the whole process of what it takes to develop a vaccine. I got excited because when I’m not taking care of my kids I’m just going down the rabbit hole of reading everything that I can about the coronavirus. I haven’t even read a book since all of this started because I’m just reading as much as I can about what’s going on. So to me the opportunity to ask questions of the world’s foremost scientists and health care workers—this is an exciting opportunity.

What have you learned so far?

Vaccines typically can take years to develop. You know, some have suggested even ten years. And everyone is trying to fast-track the vaccine and have it available by the beginning of next year, probably at the earliest. [Johnson & Johnson] has identified a vaccine candidate, and they’re hoping to start conducting clinical trials by September. They’re hoping that they will have something available to the public by the beginning of next year. They plan on giving away a billion vaccines worldwide—not for profit. Initially the people who would probably get that are the people who are most vulnerable and in emergency situations.

How have you been dealing with the crisis?

The world is a totally different place than it was even a month ago. It’s surreal to be living at this time, a time that inevitably will go down in history. This period will be written about in history books forever, and I think that I personally have become more conscientious and more aware of resources and wanting to conserve and just being more aware. You know, this, the idea of a pandemic, just was so unfathomable to me. I never thought in our lifetime that we would experience something like this, when the entire country, the entire world, would just shut down for an extended period of time.

What are you taking away from this?

I hope that when we get over this—which I know will happen—that we retain some of the things that we have learned and experienced. Particularly being more educated and not being as wasteful. And being good to each other.

JnJ Facebook Episode 1

Join journalist and host @ling as she interviews scientists and healthcare workers about how vaccines work, the impact of the novel coronavirus and what’s being done globally to create a COVID-19 vaccine.

Posted by Johnson & Johnson on Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Your husband, Paul Song, is an M.D. Did he see this coming?

When this first hit the news out of China, I think about 35 people there had died. I remember him saying, “This is something very unique.” My husband was saying from the very beginning, “This is something I’ve never heard about, and the rate at which people are dying is astounding.” I believe that about 35 people had died and a couple of days later it jumped to over 1,000 in China, and that’s when he recognized that this was something very, very unique.

How are you getting by day to day under the new rules?

We’re trying to just do what we’re supposed to be doing and sheltering at home. It’s hard to have the kids 24-7. It drives me crazy. But at the same time I feel really lucky to be able to have this time with them, and I will not complain about my situation knowing that so many health care workers are risking their lives to do battle with this disease.

Is it hard to maintain provisions?

We stocked up on basic essentials in the beginning of the stay-at-home order. We bought a ton of pasta, and even though I don’t cook I bought a ton of black beans, and we bought a lot of rice. We made sure we had sufficient paper products. I wouldn’t say we hoarded by any means, but we stocked up for a good couple of weeks.

One of us, either Paul or I or Paul’s sister, will go out and buy groceries for us, and we’ll also buy groceries for my mom and his mom, because we don’t want them to leave their houses or our house. They each live two blocks away from us so our existence is basically our house and their houses, and that’s it. We’ll ride our bikes or go jogging every day, or every other day, just to get some fresh air. But for the most part we’re staying home.

Having spoken to experts, what do you think are the chances of finding a vaccine anytime soon?

There are a lot of companies that are working around the clock to try and develop a vaccine, and so I’m hopeful that sufficient testing will be able to be performed and that something will be available that is safe to be consumed by the public by the beginning of next year. From what I’ve heard from the scientists that I’ve spoken to, they are proceeding with caution, and they say that one of the only ways to successfully end a pandemic is through a vaccine.

I’m hopeful, and that’s one of the reasons I’m excited to be part of this series. I’m hoping to acquire an education about this whole process because this is happening on such an expedited time line. I want to understand as much as I can.

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