The government soon determined that the cases in which children became sick or died could be traced back to one of the six companies: Cutter Labs. It had not followed Salk’s detailed protocol to manufacture the vaccine, failing to kill the virus. As a result, children were incorrectly injected with the live virus.
Inoculation resumed in mid-June with tighter government controls and a more nervous public. In July, Hobby stepped down, citing personal reasons.
Eisenhower then signed the Polio Vaccination Assistance Act of 1955, which slated $30 million to pay for vaccines – enough to fund wider public distribution. Within a year, 30 million American kids had been inoculated, and the number of polio cases had fallen almost by half.
Heeding a lesson learned
By 1962, there were fewer than 1,000 cases of polio in the U.S. And by 1979, the U.S. was declared polio-free.
Years after the vaccine’s development, Jonas Salk would recount that sometimes he would meet people who would not even know what polio was – which he found tremendously gratifying. But the events of this past year, with all the ups and downs of coronavirus vaccine research, have proved that the history of polio’s defeat is worth remembering.
Nine companies developing a coronavirus vaccine recently joined forces to jointly promise that they would not rush anything to market until and unless the clearly delineated standards for safety and efficacy are met.
But should a modern-day Cutter incident happen again with a coronavirus vaccine, the public’s already shaky faith in vaccines could easily crumble further, impeding the effort to get as many people quickly immunized against COVID-19 as possible.
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Bringing this pandemic to an end will require more than the government’s approval of one or more coronavirus vaccines that work. Coordinating a widespread vaccination campaign will also demand the navigation of logistics, economics and politics amid an equitable approach to the distribution of these new vaccines and the public’s willingness to be inoculated.
This final push will, in addition, require the often uneasy partnership among the government, the private sector and – as is true today with massive contributions from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other charitable sources – philanthropy.