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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Winslow

5 Vaccine Facts to Impress Your Friends

A friend of mine recently sent me a copy of a letter that his wife (who has Lupus) received from her doctor. It asked her to make an appointment before Thanksgiving to receive one of the first Covid-19 vaccines outside of a clinical trial! I was elated to hear this news for her and for the world.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you have probably deduced that I have been working in the BioPharma industry for almost 30 years. I have always found the work quite satisfying since, as my first pharma employer told us, “the medicines you are helping to make could help your mother, father, grandmother, spouse or children someday.” Keeping that admonition in mind helped instill a quality mindset in the employees, and it is something I strive to remember to this day. But I digress.

The history making announcements by Pfizer a week or so ago and then by Moderna more recently are impressive, but made more impressive if you know some things about vaccine history that are not common knowledge to the average US citizen. Here are 5 facts about vaccines that you can wow and impress your friends with on your next Zoom call.

1. The first known attempt at vaccinating people was in China in the 15th century. They tried taking scabs from people who had a mild form of smallpox, drying them, grinding them up into powder, and blowing them up the patient’s nose. Believe it or not, on boys, they used the right nostril and girls, the left one. Go figure.

2. Smallpox was a terrible disease that killed as many as 50% of the people who contracted it. It was British physician Jenner who noticed that milk maids who had previously had cow pox, did not usually catch smallpox, and if they did, the symptoms were mild. It was Jenner who, in 1796 performed the ethically dubious experiment of harvesting a cowpox pustule from one of the aforementioned milk maids and scratched it into the skin of an 8-year old boy. Two years later he wrote a book about it and by 1801 as many as 100,000 British citizens had been vaccinated using this method. It was hailed as the first safe and effective vaccine.

3. Attenuated vaccines, those made with the actual virus in a weakened state and injected into a patient came along in the late 1800’s in the fight against rabies and anthrax. Later attenuated vaccines were developed for measles, mumps, and rubella. Attenuated vaccines have a potential problem though, they can, in very rare cases, mutate and give the patient the disease that they were intended to vaccinate against. Later, vaccines were developed using viruses that were completely killed instead of just weakened. Among these is the first polio vaccine developed by Salk in 1955. The later oral version (remember the sugar cubes?) used attenuated, but not killed virus and was developed in 1962.

4. A method developed in the late 1940’s was perhaps even more clever than using a killed vaccine. Scientists discovered that if they just used bits of the virus casing to inject, the human immune system could be “taught” what the virus looked like and hunt for and kill it effectively when the wild virus showed up for real.

5. The most recent method came about as we learned to decode genomes. Researchers have learned to extract DNA and RNA from pathogens and inject them. These then cause the production of proteins in some cells that will not cause the disease, but rather help educate the immune system to fight the disease. This is the basis of the vaccines that are being developed by both Pfizer and Moderna although they are using mRNA which is kind of like the instruction book used by cells to develop, in this case at least, viral proteins that mimic the disease.

Vaccines have traditionally taken many years to develop and vaccines for some diseases still elude researchers. Yet for this novel (i.e. “new”) corona virus, the researchers at these companies have done it in what should be considered light speed. No doubt, they were helped along by the FDA finding ways to cut through the red tape at that agency to move the approval process through more quickly.

We must also not forget the other 150 or so vaccine candidates that are still being developed and may prove to be just as effective. We also should remember that governments around the world have paid these and other pharmaceutical companies to start manufacturing the vaccine before they even knew if they worked. Finally, we can say “Your Tax Dollars at Work” without irony!

Join me in congratulating all the men and women that are hard at work finding a way for us to end this seemingly never-ending pandemic. We have come a long way from blowing cow pox blisters up your nose. May the wind be always at their back.


Some of the information for this article was taken from an article in Time Magazine written by Jeffrey Kluger in May 2020

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