Scientific Experimentation, Debate and Selflessness on the Way to Today’s Vaccines

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Media Outlet: Washington Post

Meredith Wadman's new book, The Vaccine Race, was reviewed in the Washington Post

In this meticulously researched history of the high-stakes race to develop effective vaccines against polio, rubella, rabies and other viruses, science writer and physician Meredith Wadman tells the story of these near-miraculous medical achievements of the post-World War II era. “The Vaccine Race” also details the risks posed by some of the early products — risks that arose, in part, because to make the vaccines, researchers first had to invent techniques for growing viruses such as polio or rubella in living cells, without knowing what other viruses those host cells might harbor. Even when a courageous government scientist, Bernice Eddy, and colleagues showed that monkey cells used to produce the Salk polio vaccine and other vaccines contained a virus, SV40, that could cause malignant changes in human cells, government officials at first discounted the evidence and allowed such vaccines to remain on the market. 
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At almost 400 pages of text plus abundant endnotes, this book is so rich in scientific anecdotes, historical detail and quirky characters that I can’t do it justice in a short review. Wadman conjures the wizardry of Hayflick’s cell laboratory; the brick vastness of long-gone Philadelphia General Hospital, which cared for the city’s workers and poor; the medical acumen of Australian eye surgeon Norman McAlister Gregg, who first made the connection between pregnant women with rubella and babies born blind. She conveys the era’s no-holds-barred approach to science, as well as the altruism of individual scientists and doctors at a time when no one had yet thought of patenting a gene or a living cell. Her dissection of the role played by abortion in vaccine development provides valuable context for understanding today’s abortion politics, and her chapter on the stirrings of entrepreneurship among biologists and universities is an enlightening primer on the birth of the biotech industry.


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Meredith Wadman is the author of The Vaccine Race, about a unique group of cells that are widely used in scientific research and for making vaccines that have immunized hundreds of millions of people. She was a New America fellow in 2015.