Who Invented the Polio Vaccine?
Jonas Salk invented the polio vaccine in 1953 but never patented it. He believed that, like the sun, a vaccine for polio belonged to the people.
Salk tested the vaccine on himself and his own family first and later went on to work on a cure for AIDS. His views on life are well documented in a New York Times article, a CBS interview, and two books in which he describes his “biophilosophy”, or the role morality plays and will play in the future of human evolution.
Salk is impressive, but he must be talked about along with Albert Sabin, who discovered a vaccine around the same time (and also didn’t patent it), FDR, the March of Dimes, and the technology of their time.
The story of Polio – The vaccine that changed the world.
What is Polio?
FACT: In 1955 there were 28,985 cases of polio in the U.S. and by 1957 that number had decreased to 5,894. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there were only 416 reported cases of polio worldwide in 2013, mostly confined to a handful of Asian and African countries. Salk and Sabin’s vaccines are still used to treat polio today. The Rotary Club’s fundraising has resulted in the virtual eradication of the disease in Third-World countries.
The Other Factors That Matter in the Polio Vaccine Story
Despite Salk’s impressive backstory, there is a lot more to the picture than a summary. Here are some parts of the polio vaccine story that should be put in perspective:
- Polio was more feared than it was deadly at its height in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Ten times as many children died in accidents and three times as many from cancer. It was, however, crippling and disabled people on a large scale.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) played a big role in funding and awareness. FDR had contracted polio in 1921. In 1938 as President he helped to found the (now titled) March of Dimes Foundation. By the late 40’s the foundation was raising tens of millions a year with the help of celebrities like Mickey Mouse. The March of Dimes Foundation funded Salk, and helped him to become the first one to find a vaccine for Polio.
- When Salk first created the Vaccine, it couldn’t be mass produced since the technology needed to produce large quantities of virus samples didn’t exist. The profit to be made from the vaccine wasn’t as obvious at the time as it would be today. That may or may not have mattered.
- Albert Sabin came up with a polio vaccine right after Salk, Sabin importantly also did not patent the vaccine. Sabin used a “live weakened” virus, which works better for long term protection, and Salk used a “killed virus,” which works better for short-term boosters.
- People argue that the Sabin vaccine is better as Salk vaccine receivers can still transmit the virus, whereas the Sabin ones do not, and the Sabin vaccine counters transmission through the intestinal cavity (where the infection begins) meaning it works better for the eradication of the virus. Sabin belittled Salk’s methods of using a “killed vaccine” calling him “a mere kitchen chemist.”
- In 1952, Salk tested the vaccine on himself and his family. Luckily his “killed vaccine” couldn’t reproduce and the body developed antibodies to it.
- Shortly after the release of the vaccine, one batch of vaccines contaminated with live polio strains led to 200 polio cases illness, paralysis, and eleven deaths. Companies contracted by the March of Dimes produced 9 million doses of the vaccine. Outside of the one instance, not a single case of polio attributed to the Salk vaccine was ever contracted in the United States.
- Since Sabin’s live-virus vaccine, which is responsible for about a dozen cases of polio each year, is seen as the final obstacle to eliminating the disease in most of the world, the WHO has urged polio-free countries to return to Salk’s killed-virus vaccine.
Who Deserves Credit Sabin or Salk?
Both Sabin and Salk deserve credit for developing a polio vaccine, and for leaving it free of patents.
Why Didn’t Jonas Salk Patent the Polio Vaccine?
Lawyers had tried to see if the vaccine could be patented. It’s unclear if the vaccine was or wasn’t thought patentable at the time, if Salk’s ethical stand kept it from patented, or if there is more to the story. The end-result is, while there is no cure for Polio, it has all but been eradicated due to Salk and Sabin’s un-patented Polio vaccines.
The Edward R. Murrow Interview
On April 12, 1955, the day the Salk vaccine was declared “safe, effective and potent,” CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow interviewed Salk. When talking about the millions donated to the March of Dimes and asked by Murrow “who owns the patent?” Salk replied, ”The people I’d say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
The clip of Murrow interviewing Salk.
Killed Virus Versus Live Virus
When Salk created the vaccine, it was thought that we couldn’t create vaccines from “killed” viruses. Salk used formaldehyde to deactivate the virus. He then, after testing it on 200 monkeys, injected it into himself and his family believing that the immune system would form antibodies. This was the first time it was shown that a vaccine could work without having to introduce weakened forms of a virus into healthy patients.
The March of Dimes, the First Double-Blind Experiment, and the Biggest Public Health Experiment in American History
As much as history likes to credit Salk, FDR’s March of Dimes put a lot of support behind Salk. It’s unclear if this was part of the reason that the vaccine wasn’t patented. The funding certainly sped up the rate at which the vaccine was administered. 1.8 million “polio pioneers” were vaccinated and for the first time the researchers used “the double-blind method” in which neither the patient nor person administering the inoculation knew if it was a vaccine or placebo.