The vaccine-hunters

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.


The infectious prediction of thrillers

Some writers land in the right place at the right time. Others anticipate, showing us what life might look like in a few years if things go horribly wrong. Many of the near-futurists build their plots on epidemics. Bob Reiss (Black Monday) did it with oil. Patricia Gussin (Weapon of Choice) does it with biologics.

In Gussin’s novel, published in 2012 but set in 1985, thoracic surgeon Dr. Laura Nelson gets caught in a medical and bureaucratic firestorm when a fast-moving staph infection spreads through her hospital at the same time the facility receives its first AIDS patient. Aside from delivering a decent thriller, the author shows what happens when antibiotic-resistant infections spread, and how hospitals and agencies such as the CDC must work quickly to contain the disease.

Weapon-of-Choice-3DSince Gussin is not only a physician but the former vice president of consumer pharmaceuticals at healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson, she writes with great detail . . . and frightening authority. Frightening because people can use these microbes as weapons.

All of which leads us to the latest crisis in healthcare, the threat of an Ebola pandemic. People worry about travel and transmission. Writers evoke images of the plague. Institutions scramble to contain, treat and reassure.

In Gussin’s book, she details CDC protocols for isolation and decontamination. Have they improved since 1985? Do they work as well in airports as they do in books?

When you look into the near future, what do you see?