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Would You Patent the Sun? Polio Vaccine Inventor Jonas Salk’s Son Urges More Access to COVID Vaccine

StoryJanuary 15, 2021
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The total number of deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. is set to top 400,000 before Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, but rollout of coronavirus vaccines has been slow, with many describing a vexing amount of red tape standing between them and the shot. We look at the development and distribution of another vaccine during the polio epidemic in the 1950s with Dr. Peter Salk, a physician and professor of infectious diseases and microbiology at the University of Pittsburgh, whose father, Dr. Jonas Salk, developed the first polio vaccine and famously declined to patent his invention. “The rest of the world and the countries that are less able to afford vaccines need consideration, as well,” says Dr. Salk. “There needs to be a creative cooperation among all of us, including the businesses, in order to find ways to satisfy the needs of these other countries.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

The United States reported its 10th day in a row of more than 200,000 new COVID-19 cases Thursday and over 3,700 deaths. The total confirmed number of deaths is set to top 400,000 before Inauguration Day, which is next Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the U.S. rollout of the coronavirus vaccine continues to lag even as states follow new CDC recommendations to offer the vaccine to anyone 65 and older. Fewer than 10 million people in the U.S. have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, despite the federal government’s aim to have 20 million people vaccinated by the end of 2020.

As efforts to ramp up distribution continue, we look back at another epidemic that swept the globe and how a vaccine changed everything. It was the 1950s when polio hit a fever pitch, disabling an average of 35,000 people a year, until pioneering Dr. Jonas Salk made history by developing an effective polio vaccine. The story of Jonas Salk is told in the documentary The Shot Felt ’Round the World: How the Polio Vaccine Saved Millions. This is the trailer.

DAVID OSHINSKY: When we look back upon polio today, you look back upon what was really a summer plague. It came every year. It came like locusts. There was no prevention. There was no cure. There was no protection.

DR. JONATHAN SALK: I grew up in a family where there was a sense, you know, that my dad was a scientist. He actually would talk about how he used to, as a child, pray that he could do something good for humanity.

DAVID OSHINSKY: He was the miracle worker in the white coat, on the one hand, but he was also an incredibly hard-working, devoted scientist for whom people were willing to sacrifice.

JOHN TROAN: He was challenging medical orthodoxy.

DAVID OSHINSKY: All of the people who mattered in virology — John Enders, Albert Sabin, Tom Rivers and others — basically believed in a live virus vaccine. And here is Jonas Salk, someone who is younger, going in exactly the opposite direction.

DR. PETER SALK: He was well aware of the early vaccine failures. The first attempt with an inactivated polio vaccine killed kids.

DR. PAUL OFFIT: It’s a testament to his courage and resolve that he could inoculate children with something that he knew started out as live, dangerous polio virus. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Vaccines are always a matter of risk versus reward, and nothing is perfect. Nothing is perfect.

JULIUS YOUNGNER: We didn’t have to really be stimulated very much, because up on the third floor was the polio ward, where they had all the iron lungs.

DR. SIDNEY BUSIS: And I remember the faces on some of these kids, you know, in agony. Just picture your own 2-year-old. It’s just dreadful.

DR. THOMAS FRANCIS JR.: The vaccination was 80 to 90% effective against paralytic poliomyelitis.

JOHN TROAN: The guy gets off the elevator. He never got into the room. “It works! It works!” they were yelling.

DR. PAUL OFFIT: There were newspaper reporters that ran to telephones to quickly get this as a front-page headline on probably every newspaper in this country.

DAVID OSHINSKY: Kids ran out into the street. Factory whistles went off. Church bells tolled. It was, in a way, as if a war had ended. Jonas Salk became a national hero. You know, he was on the cover of Time. Newsweek called him one of the greatest Americans. President Eisenhower invited him to the White House and actually broke down. This is a sign of how great American medicine is at this time. It is an extraordinarily wonderful, optimistic moment, OK? And there is reason to be proud. Jonas Salk is the people’s scientist.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for The Shot Felt ’Round the World, the Remarkable story of Dr. Jonas Salk. This is the famous journalist Edward Murrow asking Dr. Jonas Salk in 1955 who owns the patent to the polio vaccine.

EDWARD MURROW: Who owns the patent on this vaccine?

DR. JONAS SALK: Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. This is — could you patent the sun?

AMY GOODMAN: “Could you patent the sun?” For more on this history and why it’s relevant today, we’re joined by the son of Dr. Jonas Salk. That’s right, physician Dr. Peter Salk. He’s a professor of infectious disease and microbiology at the University of Pittsburgh, was just 9 years old in 1953 when his dad came home and injected him with the polio vaccine. He recently wrote an op-ed for The Globe and Mail headlined “Polio vaccines brought an earlier epidemic under control. New vaccines can end this current plague.” Dr. Salk is joining us from La Jolla, California.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. What an astounding story about how your father changed the world! But talk about you as a little boy. I mean, we’re talking two years before this was accepted. Your dad comes home, and you were what? Nine years old?

DR. PETER SALK: Yeah, indeed. Well, he came home with the experimental vaccine, that had been tested in a small group of kids, starting out with kids who already had polio, as a protective measure, and was just at the point of wanting to expand the trials in the Pittsburgh area in the lead-up to what became this huge national field trial that started in 1954 with 1.8 million schoolchildren taking part.

So, this was a transition moment — came home with the vaccine; came home with glass syringes, which is what were used at the time, and reusable needles that he had to boil on the stove in order to sterilize; lined us three kids up — I was the oldest, and my two younger brothers — and administered the injections. And none of us liked needles. They were one of our least favorite things. And I might not even remember that occasion, except for the fact that, for some miracle, that morning, the injection didn’t hurt. And that emblazoned the memory in my mind, so I can see — I can see myself standing in the kitchen, see the light coming in the window. It’s something I won’t forget.


DR. PETER SALK: Oh, you know what? Let me add something. I want to add this, just about that particular pivotal moment. What I think my father was doing, in preparation for rolling out to a larger number of kids in the Pittsburgh area, is, number one, demonstrating his confidence in this experimental vaccine preparation. The second thing was, OK, we’ve seen the results in these very small trials that had been done, that the vaccine, the experimental vaccine, is increasing antibody levels, which should be enough to protect against paralysis. I want my kids protected.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about — I mean, he was upending the science of much more established scientists.

DR. PETER SALK: Very much so.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what he came up with, the idea of the live virus being injected versus other means.

DR. PETER SALK: Yeah. When he was in medical school, a professor told the class that you can use inactivated material to protect against some bacterial diseases, but when it comes to viral diseases, you can’t do that. You need to have an actual infection with a live virus in order to produce protective immunity. And my father just couldn’t understand why should that be the case. And he asked the professor why, and the professor said, “Well, because.”

And that set my father off on the trajectory that characterized this next phase of his career. He ended up doing some work with a person who had been one of his teachers in medical school, went to join him at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. You saw him for a moment in the trailer. This is Thomas Francis, who ended up being responsible for analyzing the results of this huge national field trial with the polio vaccine. But leading up before that, my father worked with Dr. Francis on the very first influenza vaccine, indeed using a killed virus, or an inactivated virus, contrary to the way people thought things should be done, and that worked. It was introduced into the Armed Forces at the end of World War II.

And following that, my father brought the family to Pittsburgh, to the University of Pittsburgh, where he was going to continue that sort of work, got tapped on the shoulder by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, the March of Dimes, to take part in some initial studies in preparation for vaccine work, and very quickly just decided to get on this horse and run, so to speak, and move towards getting an inactivated polio virus vaccine out and available.

AMY GOODMAN: So, compare that, Dr. Salk — it’s so interesting to call you — you know, obviously, your name is Dr. Salk, but it’s Dr. Peter Salk, because —


AMY GOODMAN: Compare that to the vaccines of today, how they — what the mRNA is, compared to the polio vaccine.

DR. PETER SALK: No, this is really so extraordinary, because back in those days there were only fundamentally two approaches to making vaccines against viral illnesses: the killed virus, whole virus, inactivated so that it can’t do harm, but it has all of the materials of the virus that will stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies and so on; the other approach was a live virus, living, that had been weakened in the laboratory or in passage through animals, so that it would cause an infection but not produce deleterious effects. So, that’s all that was available back then. Now, since then, there’s been so much that has been learned about how viruses work, their makeup, their genetics, how they infect people, and so on. And what we have today is just an explosion of new techniques to make vaccines very quickly.

So, these two mRNA vaccines that have come out are making use of one of those techniques, which is to take the genetic material of the coronavirus and focus on just that part of the genome that codes for the so-called spike protein, that many people have heard about, that’s on the surface of the virus, and that’s the protein that the virus uses to get inside of cells. So, it’s been constructed in just the right way. And what’s been done with those two vaccines is just to take that pure [RNA], encapsulate it, inject it into the muscle; it gets into the cells, and that RNA instructs the cells that that RNA gets into to manufacture the spike protein. Doesn’t manufacture anything else about the virus. There’s no coronavirus that’s produced. It’s just this pure protein, that then the immune system sees and recognizes, “Hey, that’s something new. I don’t like it,” and the body makes antibodies against it. And it’s those antibodies then that end up being protective against developing severe coronavirus [infection], because when the virus comes into the body — the real, actual virus — those antibodies are all tooled up to fight against it. So, that’s one approach.

Another kind of approach that’s available now to make a vaccine very quickly is taking the genetic instructions and putting them into a different kind of virus that’s harmless, like a common cold virus, the so-called adenovirus. And that virus then can get into the body, transmit the genetic instructions, and then the same thing happens: The body makes the right kind of antibodies. You can put that even into a measles vaccine virus that’s harmless. That’s another kind of approach.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted —

DR. PETER SALK: And then — OK.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Noam Chomsky for a minute. We talked to him last year about your father, Jonas Salk.

NOAM CHOMSKY: I’m old enough to remember the terror of polio was ended by a government-initiated and -funded project that finally led to the Salk vaccine, which was free, no intellectual property rights. Jonas Salk said it should be as free as the sun.

AMY GOODMAN: And I want to repeat that one more time, though we’ve played it a few times on the show here. When journalist Ed Murrow asked your dad, Dr. Jonas Salk, who owned the patent to the polio vaccine, Salk replied, “Well, the people. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” This is the SOT.

EDWARD MURROW: Who owns the patent on this vaccine?

DR. JONAS SALK: Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. This is — could you patent the sun?

AMY GOODMAN: So, this is such a profound point and so different from the way medicine is practiced today. The significance of who profits from these vaccines, Dr. Salk?

DR. PETER SALK: You know, we’re living in a real world. And the real world is made up — includes businesses that need to be able to make investments in the research that they’re doing and to make profits on that basis. What I think is so important at this juncture is the world is needing vaccines. We’ve been focused on our own situation now, and that’s appropriate, but the rest of the world and the countries that are less able to afford vaccines need consideration, as well. So, somehow there needs to be a creative cooperation among all of us, including the businesses, in order to find ways to satisfy the needs of these other countries that can’t afford the kinds of interventions that we have been able to afford ourselves.

AMY GOODMAN: The World Health Organization just said 46 countries are now vaccinating their populations.

DR. PETER SALK: That’s great.

AMY GOODMAN: Only one of those 46 is a low-income country.

DR. PETER SALK: That’s not good.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Dr. Salk, I want to ask about the studies. Now under 10 million people have been vaccinated in the United States. But the movement of those who are deeply concerned about a vaccine, that it could make you sick, are saying, “OK, where’s the evidence? Where are the studies of the effects of these vaccines?” The fact that, one, we don’t have a national database so people can report on what they feel afterwards and what’s happened to them, but also just who has gotten this vaccine, who is getting two vaccines, how do you ensure that you get the second vaccine, now with President-elect Biden saying, and the Trump administration agreeing, just release all the vaccines so people will just see if they get the second vaccine that makes you more fully immune?

DR. PETER SALK: Yeah, there are a bunch of different questions sort of embedded in that. And I’m of mixed mind. I have to say, thinking for myself, I have not yet received the vaccine. I’m very much looking forward to it. I had been concerned initially about the prospect that this was being rushed too fast. But I’m not feeling that way now. I’m feeling very good about what I’ve seen from the studies that were done.

The vaccines — look, these two first vaccines, around 95% effective, that is extraordinary. And with some soreness of the arm, maybe feeling a bit punk on occasion. People who have a tendency towards allergic reactions can develop an allergic reaction. You have to be watched for 30 minutes after the injection to be sure that anything that comes along can be treated. We’ve not seen anything substantial so far with these two vaccines that would suggest more serious effects being exerted. But, yes, of course, we have to keep a very careful eye, as the numbers increase, to be sure that there’s not something that comes along that is rare, but unexpected, and that needs to be taken into account.

AMY GOODMAN: Children have not been tested at this point. Is that right? Kids under 14?

DR. PETER SALK: That’s correct. That’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there, but we are not going to let you off the hook. We’re having you back on. Do you think it’s possible for people in this country, for, as Joe Biden says, 100 million people to be vaccinated in the first 100 days of his administration?

DR. PETER SALK: I think that’s stretching it, frankly. It would be wonderful, if so. I really would prefer to get a — if I get a first shot, I’d prefer to get a second shot, because that’s where the 95% effectiveness lies. But at this point, I think anything that’s going to get this process accelerated will be a good thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Peter Salk — his father, Dr. Jonas Salk, developed the first polio vaccine — we thank you so much for being with us, now a professor of infectious disease and microbiology at the University of Pittsburgh. We’ll link to your piece. I’m Amy Goodman. Wear a mask. It’s an act of love.

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