Letter to the editor: Vaccines are made by people

I’m catching up on the papers after being away, and I have to respond to a letter from Marcia Merryman-Means in the Dec. 23 issue. In her letter she discusses the two types of polio vaccines: the Salk (killed) virus vaccine administered by injection and the Sabin (live) virus vaccine, administered by mouth. She mentioned that Dr. Salk was awarded the Nobel Prize. That is incorrect.

Although Salk won other awards, the Nobel Prize for the polio vaccine was given to Drs. John F. Enders, Thomas H. Weller and Frederick C. Robbins (my father) in 1954. They were able to grow the polio virus in tissue culture in the laboratory, rather than in live animals. That was the breakthrough that was needed in order to produce virus in the quantities required to make a vaccine. These scientists went on to make more contributions in the fields of medicine and public health and were well-known in their fields, although not household names. (Just as well, my dad said.)

I don’t know why the polio vaccines ended up being named after individuals, whereas others have not. Perhaps if the COVID vaccine were named after someone, it would seem more acceptable, rather than being produced by “Big Pharma.” Scientists, but not the general public, know the names of Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, who spent decades researching mRNA, overcame many obstacles and finally developed a way to safely get it into cells, just in time for the appearance of COVID-19. Their work led to the development of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. They’ve won many awards, but not the Nobel Prize; perhaps that will be next.

Chris Robbins


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