Polio and Covid 19: a tale of two vaccines

Inset: Jonas Salk in 1957 at the University of Pittsburgh where he and his team developed the first polio vaccine. PHOTO: University of Pittsburgh. GRAPHIC: Gordon Frazier / FS
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Covid-19 is new, but the terror of pandemics marches through human history. What can we learn from past battles against marauding contagion?

A mysterious, crippling disease had been known since appearing in Egyptian hieroglyphics, but poliomyelitis only reached epidemic levels in the 20th century. At its peak in the 1950s, polio paralyzed or killed over half a million people worldwide yearly. Societies fought back with quarantines, banning public events, hygiene campaigns, and an increasingly frantic effort to create a vaccine.

The public embraced the quest to prevent polio. Research in the U.S. was funded, not by the government or corporations, but by people donating to the March of Dimes. Hundreds of thousands volunteered for their children to be test subjects in the most massive medical trial ever conducted.

In 1955, the momentous announcement was broadcast by newsman Edmund R. Murrow: the vaccine was safe and effective. When asked by Murrow who owned the vaccine, inventor Jonas Salk famously responded, “I suppose the people . . . Can you patent the sun?”

Salk’s answer was logical and humane. No individual should own and privately profit off an inoculation intended to protect the entire populace and future generations. The first polio vaccine proved that it was possible, even within the bottom-line obsessed capitalist system, to carve out essential products to be patent-free and available for the common good.

Fast forward to 2020. The coronavirus pandemic body count and economic destruction is still escalating. Companies worldwide are running human trials on 52 separate vaccines — with another 87 being tested in animals! The race is on to see which entrepreneurs get out ahead and grab the lion’s share of the market.

In the U.S., the people are again paying for the vaccine, but not by free will. The federal government has already shelled out an estimated $18 billion of taxpayers’ money in grants and pre-orders to multiple companies.

Big Pharma has picked up a few tricks in the decades since the Salk vaccine went unpatented. Corporations spent the ’80s and ’90s tightening the lockdown on “intellectual property.”

Developing new vaccines and treatments for this and other diseases is hamstrung by legal maneuvers to weave secrecy around medical advances and cherry-pick the information and results made public.

The legacy of the Salk vaccine set the standard that preventatives and treatments critical for public health rightfully belong to the people, including Covid-19. Nationalization is a key step to the collaboration, transparency, efficiency and affordability.

Learning from past failures. As powerful a precedent as it set, the polio vaccination history has a dark side, with lessons just as critical.

The Salk formula was given to nine U.S. companies, but with no oversight. In the rushed first weeks of mass immunization, one California company sent out vials with live virus, infecting 40,000, leaving 11 dead and 250 with paralysis. Seeds of mistrust were sown, a skepticism about vaccination that has skyrocketed with overt profiteering and political weaponization of medicine in the Trump/Covid era.

How can vaccines be best produced and trusted? By putting control and oversight in the hands of workers in the pharmaceutical industry and health care experts and advocates.

Health inequity is also part of polio’s legacy. From 1955, the incidence in the U.S. and other industrialized countries dropped like a rock. Yet 30 years passed before the World Health Organization launched a worldwide campaign to eradicate the disease in the poorer nations. Another three decades, and yet polio persists in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.

The war against Covid will be won globally, breaking barriers of racial and economic disparity, or it will not be won at all.

Send feedback to the author at drsusan762@gmail.com.

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