Borrell goes behind the scenes of Operation Warp Speed in The First Shots: The Epic Rivalries and Heroic Science Behind the Race to the Coronavirus Vaccine (Mariner, Oct.).

What’s most newsworthy here?

I focus on the “doers” who are grappling with the scientific question marks surrounding this new, scary virus in early 2020, and who ultimately contributed to making Operation Warp Speed successful against all odds. I think most readers will be surprised to learn that Warp Speed was initially spearheaded by a group of outcasts in the Trump administration who were constantly on the verge of getting fired. The accelerated vaccine program got the backing of a powerful ally, Jared Kushner, and Warp Speed’s leaders subsequently did everything in their power to keep various factions of the White House away from it.

Which scientists involved most deserve to be household names?

Barney Graham at the National Institutes of Health is a national treasure for his revolutionary work that led to our coronavirus vaccines. He’s a modest, bighearted man from Kansas. One of his postdoctoral researchers, Kizzmekia Corbett, led the early animal research on the coronavirus vaccine and has become quite a social media star and an influential voice in encouraging members of the Black community to get vaccinated. Another is Katalin Karikó, the Hungarian-born scientist who grew up in a house without running water, whose mRNA discoveries led to the technology that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine platforms are based on.

What was the hardest part of the book to write?

The part where I write about Health Secretary Alex Azar getting ousted as the chairman of the White House Coronavirus Task Force in February 2020. It’s a pivotal event, because from that point forward he’s kind of sulking and plotting a way to regain power, which ultimately comes from the vaccines. But I must have rewritten that section a dozen times trying to summarize the palace intrigue without getting too lost in the sprawling cast of characters and the vagaries of government bureaucracy.

What surprised you the most about what you learned?

Something really boring—how important good leadership is. I was dazzled by these brilliant people in both the scientific and policy realms, but without thoughtful leadership, those big egos end up clashing constantly. You take a guy like Gustave Perna, the four-star general who headed up Operation Warp Speed and talks like a high school football coach. Now, he is obviously no dum-dum, but his talent was in talking to people who are probably way smarter than him, figuring out what needed to be done to achieve the mission, and inspiring them to work toward it in a productive way. You always need someone like that.