Nurith Aizenman

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What went wrong?

At year's end, that's the question being asked about the global effort to make sure that all countries get vaccines against COVID-19.

The discovery of the omicron variant of the coronavirus — which has a high number of concerning mutations — has kicked off a frenzy of research. Scientists are racing to figure out how transmissible this variant is and how resistant to vaccines it is.

They're also grappling with a mystery: How did omicron get created?

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Fans of the television series The Great British Bake Off have long marveled at the skill contestants show during the dreaded "technical challenge" — for which they are given a basket with all the ingredients needed to make a highly unusual dish but a set of instructions that are often as vague as, "Bake until ready." Now a team of scientists at a pharmaceutical startup in South Africa is essentially confronting the same type of test — except the stakes are life and death.