Dr. Peter Salk still remembers the day his father learned the American manufacturers of the revolutionary polio vaccine he developed had messed up a batch — with deadly consequences.
“This was probably one of the worst moments of his life, when this happened,” said Salk.
“He had full confidence in the safety of the vaccine — if manufactured correctly. And this just was a devastating experience.”
Salk’s father was Dr. Jonas Salk, the American virologist whose development of a crucial polio vaccine in 1955 is widely credited with finally reining in the devastating spread of polio.
While the vaccine itself was safe, failure by the infamous (and defunct) Cutter Laboratories south of the border to manufacture it properly led to thousands of American children who got the vaccine being infected instead, with 200 left paralyzed and 10 dying as a result.
The incident is sometimes cited by anti-vaxxers as an example of vaccination gone wrong, and the rapid spread of vaccine misinformation from many of those same camps amid the coronavirus pandemic has been cited by public health officials as a key challenge.
Multiple vaccine manufacturers are now sharing promising early results from their clinical trials, with nine vaccines around the world currently in Phase 3 trials and three others in Phase 2.
At the moment, there is hope that the first doses of vaccines that complete testing successfully could be rolled out between January and March 2021, with broader vaccination for the general public taking place over the course of the next year or two.
However, the number of Canadians who say they plan to get the vaccine once it’s approved by Health Canada stands at between roughly 54 and 69 per cent, according to two recent polls.
More than 20 per cent suggest they plan to reject the vaccine, with many citing concerns about the speed of the vaccine development and safety concerns, despite there being no evidence of any.
And while the younger Salk — himself a medical researcher specializing in immunotherapies and vaccine production — said the Cutter incident highlighted the need for strict safety protocols, he is encouraged by how seriously the firms developing coronavirus vaccines are taking the need to ensure safety.
“One does need to be very careful about potential adverse effects because vaccines can have adverse effects,” he noted. “So far, so good with where things are now.
“I was very concerned that the politics of the situation might lead to pressure to move things more quickly than would be safe.
“But the companies and groups working on the vaccines have uniformly exhibited their understanding of the necessity that corners not be cut and that the trials have to be conducted in the most safe and appropriate way. I think that’s taking place at this point.”
Since 1994, Canada has been free from the paralyzing polio virus, which was widely referred to in earlier times as “the crippler.” And while the term is harsh to modern ears, so, too, were the effects of the virus.
It can be difficult to fully comprehend just how polio ravaged the bodies of its victims.
The largest voting bloc in the country — Millennials — are more likely than not to have no memories or first-hand experience in the way the virus spread rapidly through communities, and of the terror its survivors recount as the memory of being faced with the “iron lung.”
But for decades in the first half of the 20th century, polio came with the summer, striking down people of all ages but hitting children — and those under the age of five — most brutally.
Like the current coronavirus, polio was highly infectious and could be spread through the air by people without symptoms talking, coughing or sneezing.
Summertime — normally marked with swimming pools and vacation from school — saw the virus spread aggressively, and its ravaging effects on the nervous system often left victims struggling to breathe. Many suffered permanent nerve damage, forcing them to use crutches or metal braces afterwards.
And even among the survivors, the virus left a lasting mark.
Former prime minister Paul Martin is one of them.
“What I remember growing up in southwestern Ontario was that polio was an annual affair that took place in the summer. Every kid was warned by his mother and his father about it,” Martin recounted. “You knew it was going to happen. That was a fact of life. It was also, by the way, probably what saved my life.”
Martin contracted polio in 1945 at the age of eight, and has been vocal in sharing his experience in order to raise awareness about the need to continue fighting the virus in developing countries.
The first symptom, he said, was a strange sensation that struck him one morning.
“I said to my mother, ‘I don’t feel well, I’ve got a plate in my stomach.’ The next thing I knew, I was in the car on the way to Hotel-Dieu Hospital in Windsor,” he said.
“She had been warning me about polio ever since I was born, and it happened.”
The next month and a half were spent in hospital.
Martin describes the ward as being full of other children his age who were all battling polio, some of whom ended up needing the help of an iron lung to keep breathing.
“There was a fellow older than me in the ward, in the bed just down from me, and they brought in an iron lung. I had never seen an iron lung but I had it (polio) in the lungs, and I turned to him and said, ‘What’s that?'” Martin said.
“He said, ‘That’s an iron lung, and that’s where you’re going to end up.’
“And I’ve got to tell you — that’s when I suddenly realized what I was in for.”
Martin ultimately made a full recovery but for his family, polio was an experience that struck deeply.
His father, longtime federal politician and diplomat Paul Martin Sr., had also survived a bout of polio that left him with nerve damage limiting the use of his right arm and left him blind in one eye.
A decade after his son’s fight with polio, Martin Sr. was minister of national health and found himself facing the moral decision of whether to stop distributing the Salk vaccine after the Cutter incident.
At the time, no one knew exactly what was causing the infections.
The Salk vaccine used a deactivated polio virus — a critical part of what made it safe for public use. But strict safety protocols had to be followed in order to deactivate the virus, and Cutter Labs’ failure to follow those led to vaccines with a live virus being injected into roughly 40,000 American children.
The results were devastating.
“So the Americans stepped in and stopped the vaccine right across the country,” said Martin.
“We had already started (rolling it out) and therefore the pressure started to come — ‘Canada, you’ve got to stop the vaccine.'”
Martin said because the Salk vaccine had been carefully tested, his father was convinced the incident was caused by a bad batch — which turned out to be correct — and insisted on keeping the program running in Canada.
Had he shut down the program, there was a real possibility that would be the end for the vaccine in North America, Martin said. But his father’s thinking was also personal.
“He didn’t want another child to miss getting the vaccine. He knew what it meant to have polio,” he said.
“It turned out to be the right decision … if Canada had delayed things for a month, three months, six months or a year, there would have been thousands of kids who would have contracted polio.
“That was my father’s great fear.”
It goes without saying that vaccine testing and production has changed immensely since the 1950s.
Particularly with the quest for a coronavirus vaccine, scientists and pharmaceutical companies are under closer scrutiny than probably ever before, and firms that fail to properly document their testing and data are quickly called out for inadequate work, as was the case with Russia’s contentious vaccine.
The Cutter incident, while terrible, resulted in significant regulation of vaccines far and above what many other medical products receive. Salk said it also provided a critical lesson for the world in vaccine safety.
“Be careful at every step along the way,” he said. “You have to, in all of the manufacturing issues and the testing issues, you’ve just got to be transparent in what you’re doing.”
Both Salk and Martin said everything they see so far suggests that’s the case.
With files from Global’s Mike Armstrong.