Sep 12, 2020
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Defeating polio. Why was the American vaccine tested in the USSR?

How was the polio vaccine created? Why did the USSR and the United States have to become allies in the fight against the disease at the height of the Cold War?

Our expert - the host of the Epidemic program cycle on the Doctor TV channel Yevgeny Paperny...

In the vast majority of cases, the polio virus causes only mild discomfort. But in two cases out of a hundred, paralysis occurs, life-long lameness, in the worst case, painful death.

Crippling virus

The infection enters the body through the mouth. If the immune system is strong, the infection will quickly surrender. If not, it enters the bloodstream and gets to the nerve cells of the brain and spinal cord. 25% of killed neurons of the spinal cord - and the patient develops paresis - a partial loss of motor function. 75% is already paralysis. After the death of neurons, the muscles of the limbs (more often the legs) atrophy. Because of this, bones do not grow, and joints are unevenly stretched and bent.

Electron micrograph of the polio virus
Electron micrograph of the polio virus. Photo: Public Domain

In 1890 a Swedish pediatrician Karl Oscar Medine discovered the infectious nature of poliomyelitis, but could not find the culprit. 19 years later they did it Karl Landsteiner and Erwin Popper... They proved that the causative agent of poliomyelitis is a virus from the picornavirus family.

Enemies and allies

Summer 1921. In the United States, it is a national disaster. In the east of the country, two thousand people, most of whom are children, die from an outbreak of polio within three months. Seven thousand patients remain paralyzed. The peak of the epidemic in the United States is 1952. 58 thousand sick! 10% of them, mainly children, died of complications - pneumonia and paralysis of the respiratory muscles.

In the USSR, the poliomyelitis epidemic began 30 years later. The problem of disease prevention was quickly elevated to the rank of the most important state tasks. In Moscow, he headed the work on the creation of a vaccine Mikhail Chumakov - Director of the new polio institute. In Leningrad, this was done by the Virology Department of the Institute of Experimental Medicine, headed by Academician Anatoly Smorodintsev... But Soviet scientists received help from where they did not expect - from the United States. In 1953, American virologist Jonas Salk introduced the world to the first "killed", that is, inactivated, vaccine. It was based on poliovirus, grown in the kidney tissue of African monkeys and chemically "turned off" with formalin.

Mass vaccination in America began in April 54th. And it ended in a huge scandal. Hundreds of vaccinated children have contracted polio. The US Health Service investigated and found that some of the vaccine lots contained live, not neutralized, virus. Obviously, the manufacturers violated the technology. At this moment, another American virologist - Albert Seibin - ventured to present a new type of polivaccine - live! He was convinced that a live oral vaccine would develop more reliable immunity. But there was no chance of testing, let alone vaccination, in the United States after the scandal with the "killed" vaccine. And then Albert Seibin makes a historic decision. At the height of the Cold War, the scientist transfers all his developments to Soviet colleagues - M. Chumakov and A. Smorodintsev. Science turned out to be above politics. Work began at the Leningrad Institute of Experimental Medicine and the Moscow Research Institute of Poliomyelitis. In the fall of 1956, the first tests began.


Tested on granddaughter

During testing of a new vaccine, scientists from the Virology Department of the Leningrad Institute of Experimental Medicine take a risk: they drink a glass of water in which the "tamed" strain of the disease is diluted. The risky experiment is going well, but for the final stage of testing, not an adult is needed, but a child - healthy and not immune to a dangerous disease.

It was impossible to find parents who voluntarily agree to vaccinate their child with a live experimental vaccine. And then Academician Anatoly Smorodintsev brings the finished drug to his home. At dinner, he drips it onto cookies and treats them to his six-year-old granddaughter Lena ... The tense days of waiting begin. Every day the girl is examined by several doctors: they take her temperature, check her reflexes, do tests ... Two weeks later, antibodies appear in Lena's blood! She's protected! This day becomes a holiday for Lena's grandfather, all his colleagues and, of course, the "father" of the live vaccine - Albert Seibin. By 1963, instead of tens of thousands of cases in the USSR, only a few hundred cases of infection were recorded. The epidemic is declining. Since the mid-60s, the Soviet live vaccine has been exported.

Institute of Poliomyelitis and Viral Encephalitis of the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences (now named after M.P. Chumakov RAS).  Production of a polio vaccine under conditions of complete sterility.  1963 g.
Institute of Poliomyelitis and Viral Encephalitis of the Academy of Medical Sciences of the USSR (now named after M.P. Chumakov RAS). Production of a polio vaccine under conditions of complete sterility. 1963 Photo: RIA Novosti / Lev Ustinov

Vaccination in a new way

Half a century later, the World Health Organization has taken steps to switch from a live vaccine to a "killed" vaccine. There are a number of reasons for this. First, there is no mass morbidity for a long time. Secondly, the live virus, although weakened, is able to release into the environment for another two months and infect unvaccinated people. As a result, the virus mutates, new strains appear that can cause a disease in a dangerous form. The first Russian inactivated poliomyelitis vaccine is produced by a biotechnological complex in the Kirov region. It is a suspension of "killed" polio viruses and is effective against three types of pathogen at once. It can be combined with any vaccinations of the National Calendar, with the exception of anti-tuberculosis, BCG. Since there is no live virus in the drug, it can be used to vaccinate weakened children, pregnant and lactating women, and even immunocompromised patients.

There are contraindications. Be sure to consult your doctor.

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