Wishing for a Jonas Salk in the age of COVID-19

The philosophy of the virologist who developed the vaccine for polio is clearly anathema to today’s drug researchers

By Latha Jishnu
Published: Tuesday 29 December 2020
Why the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine is now a global game changer

Once there was a Jonas Salk. Few people need to be told who he was. But a brief recap is necessary. Salk was the virologist who developed the first successful vaccine against polio which was introduced in 1955. That was when polio was considered a serious public health problem worldwide, killing thousands of people, mostly children, in devastating epidemics that left a much larger number paralysed. The United States of America was badly hit by the 1952 polio epidemic and it was said that the country’s greatest fear, after the atom bomb, was polio.

Salk was a revolutionary. Contrary to the prevailing scientific wisdom, Salk believed his inactivated polio vaccine, could immunise children without the risk of infecting them. With funding from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, Salk conducted over seven years a field trial (it was not called a clinical trial) that social historian William O’Neill described as “the most elaborate programme of its kind in history”. Close to two million schoolchildren took part.

That is not why we are recalling Salk. The superstar scientist became a global celebrity because he chose not to patent the vaccine or to make money from it in order to make sure it reached the largest number of children. In one TV interview he was asked, “Who owns this patent?” Salk’s memorable reply to that: “Well, the people I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” There are many inventors who have refused to take patents but from the public health angle there is probably none to beat Salk.

The Salk philosophy is clearly anathema to today’s drug researchers. The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines that have breasted the finishing line (as well as others in the pipeline) will not be available to the majority of the world’s population because of the cost.

The irony is that all of these vaccines of drug multinationals have used a critical technology developed by the US government’s National Institutes of Health to make these vaccines, that is, a new way of “freezing” coronavirus spike proteins in the prefusion shape. Also, remember these companies have been given billions of dollars of public funds to fast-track the vaccines.

The pharmaceuticals giants have rushed to file dozens of patent applications for their vaccine candidates throwing up patent thickets that generic drug makers will find impossible to breach or challenge. That’s why the India-South Africa proposal at the World Trade Organization to suspend intellectual property rights for COVID-19-related technologies is important.

Otherwise, as this column has been pointing out repeatedly, only the rich countries will be able to access and afford the vaccines and medicines needed to fight the pandemic. The proposal has been backed by over 100 countries but those who call the shots at WTO are opposing it stoutly. In spite of the evidence staring them in the office they continue to oppose the move, parroting the pharma giants’ claim that suspension of IPRs will stifle innovation when it is most needed.

Salk would burst this bubble if he were around. Since he is not surely his legacy should serve as a reminder?

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