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NOVA: Decoding COVID-19

Illustration of coronavirus structure.
Courtesy of CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS
Illustration of coronavirus structure.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020 at 9 p.m. and Sunday, May 17 at 2 p.m. on KPBS TV + Friday, May 15 at 8 a.m. and Noon on KPBS 2 + PBS Video App

—New film follows scientists in the global race to develop a vaccine and takes viewers to the frontlines in Wuhan, China, and New York during the height of the outbreak—

NOVA “Decoding COVID-19,” is a scientific investigation into the coronavirus that has caused an international public health crisis and turned the world upside down. The film reveals the biology of the tiny pathogen devastating lives from Wuhan, China to New York City and follows the unprecedented global collaboration among scientists racing to develop a vaccine.


The special also presents harrowing, humanizing chronicles from the frontlines, following the health care providers, patients, and families battling the disease.

In December 2019, several cases of pneumonia caused by an unknown virus were detected in Wuhan, China. Symptoms included a fever, dry cough, and in some cases, severely compromised breathing.

On Jan. 7, 2020, Chinese researchers announced they had identified a novel coronavirus and a few days later, the first death was reported. Within two months, the outbreak had reached every continent except Antarctica and, on March 11, the WHO declared it a pandemic. With the number of cases and deaths still rising, the world has been brought to its knees by the tiniest of villains — a contagious pathogen about one thousandth the width of a human hair.

“Decoding COVID-19” opens in Wuhan and tells the exclusive story of Liu Qi, a 21-year-old university student who is among the first to contract the disease. As he relays his ordeal, the film calls on U.S. infectious disease experts and scientists working at the cutting edge of research to break down how this devastating virus emerged, what it does to the human body, and why it exploded into a pandemic — all told with NOVA’s signature clarity and accessibility.

The special also presents a hopeful focus: the search for scientific solutions. Though scientists have not yet found a cure, the worldwide effort to attack thevirus on multiple fronts has been unprecedented and inspiring.


“Science is going to be crucial to getting us out of this problem and scientists across the globe are coming together in ways they never have before to stop this killer,” says NOVA Co-Executive Producer Julia Cort. “This film goes beyond the disease itself, telling a deeply human story of cooperation and innovation as scientists and researchers race to save lives in the face of a common enemy.”

Unlike with previous viral threats such as Ebola, SARS, and MERS, COVID-19 patients are highly contagious before they show symptoms and sometimes remain asymptomatic, making the task of identifying the sick and mapping the disease’s spread all the more difficult.

Researchers are now turning to antibodies, proteins the immune system develops to fight off specific invaders, both to track the virus’s spread and possibly provide a treatment. In Wuhan, we follow Liu Qi in the weeks after he recovers as he donates his blood plasma, which local doctors will use to treat otherCOVID-19 patients.

They’re not the only ones: doctors around the world are turning to this tried-and-true method — transferring the antibodies from previously infected patients to severely ill patients — a measure that has shown some success.

“Decoding COVID-19” also takes viewers inside a level 4 biosafety lab where scientists are testing thousands of antiviral drug compounds in hopes of discovering a new and more effective treatment that might reduce the severity of the disease.

“This film examines an encouraging array of innovative new approaches that scientists are now pursuing to harness the immune system to fight back,” says NOVA Co-Executive Producer Chris Schmidt. “And, we show how advances in genomics, combined with a new level of openness in sharing data and results among experts and health officials around the world, have greatly accelerated efforts.”

Still, while the research is promising, many believe that immunity treatments and antiviral drugs alone won’t be enough to stop the ravages of COVID-19. A vaccine against the coronavirus is now the holy grail for science. But creating vaccines with traditional approaches, like the ones used against smallpox and measles, can take years.

To speed things up, scientists are betting on new approaches to vaccines — building them with genetic instructions. In January 2020, the coronavirus’s genome was published online, giving researchers an easy and fast way to make copies of the parts of the code — either RNA or DNA — that might train the immune system to recognize and neutralize the virus.

But, although this approach is fast, no one knows if it will actually work.

And even if one of these vaccines pass clinical trials in record time, they face other major hurdles: RNA in particular is fragile and unstable at room temperatures, posing a huge challenge when the goal is to manufacture and deliver vaccines to billions of people across the planet.

NOVA takes viewers inside leading research labs where hopes are high that one or more of these vaccines will work and help end the pandemic—though there are no guarantees.

In the meantime, the first big city to suffer the full impact of the pandemic, Wuhan, has lifted its lockdown. But life there is far from normal. We see Liu Qi learn to navigate the complex — and some would say invasive — digital tracking and constant health monitoring that every citizen there must now participate in.

As the film ends, it asks a provocative question: are we willing to pay a similar price to reopen society?

In addition to the science behind the virus and the race for a solution, “Decoding COVID-19” includes powerful human stories from the front lines of emergency services in New York and other cities at the height of the outbreak, as families and health care workers struggle with the devastation of the disease.

In one, a New York City family has no way of communicating with their infected grandfather until the hospital staff arranges for them to make a final farewell to him over the public address system.

“This whole episode brought to all of us — how much we're all in this together. How much we depend on each other,” says the patient’s palliative care physician, Dr. Alice Beal.

Experts throughout the film include:

  • Kizzmekia Corbett, National Institutes of Health (NIH)
  • Rhiju Das, Stanford University
  • Galit Alter and Dan Barouch, Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT, Harvard
  • Nahid Bhadelia, Boston University School of Medicine
  • Michael T. Osterholm, University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy
  • Jeffrey Shaman, Columbia University
  • Robert A. Davey and Ronald B. Corley, Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL)
  • David Pride, University of California San Diego
  • Duane Wesemann, Harvard Medical School, and others

Watch On Your Schedule:

This episode will be available for streaming simultaneously on all station-branded PBS platforms, including and the PBS Video App, which is available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast, for a limited time.

Extend your viewing window with KPBS Passport, video streaming for members supporting KPBS at $60 or more yearly, using your computer, smartphone, tablet, Roku, AppleTV, Amazon Fire or Chromecast. Learn how to activate your benefit now.

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A NOVA production by Holt Productions, LLC for WGBH Boston. Written, produced, and directed by Sarah Holt. Co-produced by Jane Teeling, Caitlin Saks, David Borenstein and Ma Liyan. Edited by Ralph Avellino, Ryan Shepheard, and Michael Amundson. Co-Executive Producers for NOVA are Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt. NOVA is a production of WGBH Boston. PBS International is distributing this episode worldwide.