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How The Rush To Develop A New Vaccine May Give A Rise To Public Distrust


Just months after COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic, there are already 10 vaccines being tested in humans. This isn't the first virus that has sent scientists racing to develop a vaccine. In the mid-1950s, the polio virus was the target. And the scientist Jonas Salk had just developed a promising vaccine to fight it.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Finally, April 12, 1955 - Salk vaccine safe, effective. The next challenge - commercial production of the polio vaccine in quantity.

SHAPIRO: That next step is where the problems began. In the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Brit Trogen writes about what happened next and what it means today. That's where we start our conversation, right after Salk's successful clinical trials for a polio vaccine.

BRIT TROGEN: As soon as the results of this trial were reported, there was this intense public and political pressure to try to bring the vaccine to market very quickly. And in this rush, one of the biggest biomedical disasters in American history ultimately occurred, which was called the Cutter incident. One of the private companies that was distributing the vaccine actually distributed lots that were contaminated with live polio virus, which resulted in tens of thousands of children actually developing polio from the vaccine.

And as a result of this, you know, first of all, Jonas Salk wrote that this was the first time in his life that he felt suicidal even though he had nothing to do with the error. And on a broader scale, it really destroyed faith in the scientific community and for the vaccine, you know, production process itself. There was a huge loss of public support, and it took a lot of time to recover.

SHAPIRO: Have those problems been solved? Or do you worry that the same kinds of shortcuts could lead to problems with the development of a COVID-19 vaccine?

TROGEN: So we're definitely a little concerned because of the emphasis on speed. I think it's understandable. There has been so much devastation from this illness. But you know, if we're not careful about the way we go about producing and distributing the vaccine, particularly if political forces sort of intervene before the science is really set, I think there's definitely a few different risks that could occur. The most notable is that there could be, you know, negative side effects from the vaccine itself. You know, another risk is if the vaccine itself isn't effective. But again, the broader, you know, societal risk is that any big errors in this process could contribute to a loss of trust in the medical and scientific communities and increased skepticism around vaccination overall.

SHAPIRO: And so when you hear the White House announce this task force to develop a vaccine that they are calling Operation Warp Speed, what comes to mind for you as a doctor?

TROGEN: Typically, anything that is happening at warp speed, you're not really noticing any kind of warning signs that are showing up on the side of the road. You - it means you're moving so quickly that you're - everything blurs. And that is really counter to how scientists typically like to work, which is, you know, going through the process stepwise, going through the clinical trials very carefully, being aware of our biases, being aware of any kind of risks that are starting to hint that they may be there. And so I think that naming it that was a bit unfortunate.

SHAPIRO: As a doctor who believes firmly in the value of vaccines, do you feel like when you're saying this you have to add, but vaccines are good and vaccines should not be skipped and vaccines keep kids from getting sick?

TROGEN: Absolutely. I am a huge - I love vaccines. They're the greatest tool that we have in our arsenal. And you know, we often say that vaccines are just the victim of their own success. They've been so hugely successful in wiping out these devastating diseases like polio that many people just don't even recognize the risks of not vaccinating relative to the risks of getting the vaccine. Historically, anytime there are high-profile outbreaks of these illnesses, we're sort of reminded of how essential vaccines are.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Brit Trogen is a pediatrics resident at NYU Langone in New York City, and her piece about the dangers of rushing vaccine development appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Dr. Trogen, thanks for talking with us today.

TROGEN: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.