The novel coronavirus is sweeping the world. How does a vaccine-maker meet that challenge?
More than a hundred years ago, Dr. Richard Slee faced a similar situation with another virulent disease–smallpox. His fight provides a window into that process, and a cause for hope.
First, some background on one of the unsung pioneers of medicine. (His story appears in detail in my first book, The Spirit of Swiftwater.) Slee was born in 1867, a golden age of American expansion. He became a physician and went to work for the surgeon general of the Army, later the United States, a forward thinker who was concerned about the spread of smallpox. Pandemics in sixteenth-century Mexico killed 3.5 million people and accounted for nearly 9% of all deaths in nineteenth-century England. By the late 1800s, similar outbreaks were ravaging major cities in the United States.
The irony was, Americans had access to a vaccine. It just had some serious side effects, and that generated a public backlash. The French, on the other hand, had developed a safer version. The surgeon general wanted to manufacture it in the United States, and sent Slee to France to learn the secret.
Slee returned with a glowing report. Not only was the French formula more efficient, it had fewer side effects. As a bonus, it offered a longer shelf life, essential to any medicine that isn’t immediately used.
The surgeon general was so impressed, he encouraged Slee to build his own facility to manufacture the vaccine.
The rest, as they say, is history.
We take vaccines for granted. We get our shots as kids and forget about the process until we have children of our own. In the Western Hemisphere, we generally don’t see the diseases that plague the Third World. We call them preventable.
A hundred years ago, the science of immunology was struggling, and so were its advocates. Just before Dr. Richard Slee was born in 1867, the French biologist Louis Pasteur had proven the germ theory of disease. It wasn’t until 1885 that Pasteur field tested his vaccine for rabies.
Twelve years later, when Slee built his laboratory to manufacture smallpox vaccine in Swiftwater, Pennsylvania, the disease was still considered a major threat to public health. It would not be eradicated worldwide until 1980. To complicate the issue, the technology of the time caused some of those patients to become ill. Because of those adverse reactions, vaccines of the time stimulated fear as well as immunity.
Some things haven’t change.
In Minnesota, 73 cases of measles have been confirmed this year, three more than the total for the entire country last year, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Minnesota Department of Health.
The CDC and the World Health Organization also are concerned with the rise in the number of cases of mumps, polio, rubella, whooping cough and other vaccine-preventable diseases.
How did Dr. Slee manage to eradicate smallpox in America? And how has the science of infectious-disease prevention progressed over the last century?
You can follow the struggles and triumphs of the people who shaped modern medicine in The Spirit of Swiftwater, a history of vaccine development in the twentieth century. The book chronicles the pioneers of immunization who fought against the odds to establish this form of health care as standard public policy in America, with a focus on the U.S. operations of sanofi pasteur, the vaccines business of sanofi-aventis Group. Reviewers describe the work as “a thoroughly documented historical perspective of the vaccine industry in the US as seen through the history of one of its leading contributors that is also entertaining reading.”
Now, if you’re really ready for a Horatio Alger story with a medical spin, take a look at One in a Million by Mary G. Clark. In this ghosted memoir, Mary tells the story of how she took her wound-care company from the coal fields of Scranton, Pa. to the NASDAQ. The book starts with a touch of mysticism and ends with science, a fitting story for our times.