Как американские и советские ученые работали над вакциной от полиомиелита

Моя дочь, ученица 5 класса американской школы, написала статью-доклад для своего класса о совместной работе американских и советских ученых над вакциной от полиомиелита.

Это тем более важно сейчас, когда мы наблюдаем многочисленные споры, которые тормозят совместные научные достижения в борьбе с COVID-19. Я очень горжусь своей 11-летней дочерью (кстати, она мечтает стать писателем) и выкладываю сюда текст ее статьи.


5th Grade

Social Studies

Polio, or poliomyelitis, is a disabling and life-threatening disease caused by the poliovirus. The virus spreads from person to person and can infect a person’s spinal cord, causing paralysis (can’t move parts of the body). It is contracted from contaminated feces, and from the nervous tissue of monkeys. Cases of polio first appeared in the U.S. in the 1800s. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who used a wheelchair throughout his presidency, is the most famous victim of polio. Around 40,000 cases were reported in America in 1949.

In the USA and USSR, many scientists such as Jonas Salk, Albert Sabin and Mikhail Chumakov worked together to bring an end to this deadly virus. In 1955, Salk developed the inactivated poliovirus vaccine, and widespread immunization began to spread.

Dr. Jonas Salk

But there are risks. Billions of people have taken live poliovirus vaccine, nearly destroying the disease. However, in extremely rare cases, the weakened virus used in the vaccine can mutate into a more dangerous form, cause polio and infect other people. The risk of paralysis is estimated at 1 in 2.7 million vaccinations. The first polio vaccine, developed by Dr. Jonas Salk used “inactivated” virus — particles of killed virus. It had to be injected, an obstacle to immunization campaigns in poorer countries. Salk was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1954 for the first effective polio vaccine.

Dr. Albert Sabin

In the meantime, a live-virus vaccine for polio was being developed by Albert Sabin. Sabin, like many scientists of the time, believed that only a living virus would be able to guarantee immunity for an extended period. Interesting, both Salk and Sabin have Russian-Jewish roots – Salk was a son of a Jewish immigrants and Sabin was born in Bialystok, Russia (now part of Poland), at the age of 15 he emigrated with his family to the United States.

Sabin showed that poliovirus first invaded the digestive tract and then the nervous system. He was also among those who identified the three types of poliovirus. He developed a live but attenuated (lessened or weakened poliovirus) vaccine that proved to be superior in administration, but also provided longer lasting immunity than the Salk vaccine. But in the United States, with the Salk vaccine already in use, authorities were reluctant to take the perceived risk of conducting live-virus trials.

Dr. Mikhail Chumakov

From 1956, Albert Sabin worked with Russian colleagues to perfect his oral vaccine and prove its extraordinary effectiveness and safety. However, the Sabin live polio vaccine was greeted with skepticism in the U.S., and only through the passion of Mikhail Chumakov, a famous scientist, was tested in the Soviet Union. There were many opponents, who tightly controlled the Soviet Ministry of Health and would not issue permission for clinical trials. Then Chumakov used, as they say, the knight’s move. In the Soviet Union there was a Kremlin hotline, the so-called «vertushka» that only top officials had access to. Somehow, while someone’s secretary stepped out from her desk, Chumakov grabbed the «vertushka» and called Anastas Mikoyan, a Politburo member, who at the time was responsible for medicine, and was one of the most top senior officials of USSR. This was a very big risk, as you can imagine, because he was breaking the law. So, because of this, he could’ve been fired from his position of the principal of a research university. Mikoyan listened and asked Chumakov, «Do you believe in the vaccine?» After he heard the answer he said: «Begin immunization». Of course, when polio went down dramatically, no one dared to accuse Chumakov of the illegality, too obvious and significant was the victory. Soon honors and awards followed, the vaccine was called the triumph of Soviet science, and this opened the possibility of it being used worldwide.

Chumakov’s family photo, 1958

Mikhail Chumakov vaccinated himself, but a medicine intended primarily for children needed child test subjects, so he and his wife Voroshilova gave it to their three sons and several nieces and nephews. This was a big danger, because, like in today’s time with the COVID-19 vaccine, the vaccine was brand new, it was just being tested. Parents had to make the hard choice to vaccinate their children. They were being told to vaccinate their own kids with this brand new, not confirmed to be safe, vaccine, or else they will die. «Somebody has to be the first,» Peter Chumakov, one of the sons of Dr. Chumakov, who was only seven at the time, said in an interview. «I was never angry. I think it was very good to have such a father, who is confident enough that what he is doing is right and is sure he will not harm his children». «We formed a kind of line, – he said, – Into each waiting mouth, a parent popped a sugar cube laced with weakened poliovirus — an early vaccine against a dreaded disease. I was eating it from the hands of my mother». Today, that same vaccine is gaining renewed attention from researchers — including those brothers, who all grew up to be virologists — as a possible weapon against the new coronavirus, based in part on research done by their mother, Dr. Marina Voroshilova.

Dr. Sabin and Dr. Chumakov, Dr. Voroshilova with son, Konstantin Chumakov, Khimki, 1960

In America, the vaccine was not trusted. People called it a «communist vaccine» and that it was made by people who did not know what they were doing, and only Jonas Stalk’s vaccine is widely known here. The USSR decided not to believe in the American vaccine. They claimed they were the ones who made the vaccine fully. In truth, no one was correct. Politics from both countries just wanted to make themselves look good, but this has nothing to do with science.

Basil O’Connor is giving-award to Dr. Chumakov. Mr. O’Connor was an American lawyer. In cooperation with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt he started two foundations for the rehabilitation of polio patients and the research on polio prevention and treatment. From 1944 to 1949 he was chairman and president of the American Red Cross and from 1945 to 1950 he was chairman of the League of Red Cross Societies.

Albert Sabin in his article «Role of my cooperation with soviet scientists in the elimination of polio: possible lessons for relations between the U.S.A. and the USSR» stated that he wanted to highlight the important role of his cooperation with Soviet scientists in the development of the oral poliovirus vaccine used for the elimination of paralytic poliomyelitis. He also described the obstacles to worldwide eradication of the disease. Dr. Sabin said that cooperative endeavors between the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union against the larger common enemy of poverty in more than half the world’s population were very important.

If all the scientists around the world would work together like they did seventy years ago, especially if they did it without any politics around, the COVID-19 vaccine would have been developed way faster. However, propaganda has created tensions between the countries, and we may never get to see them work together again. But I can give you an example of such cooperation. Two of Dr. Chumakov’s sons became virologists. While one, Petr Chumakov, works in Russia as a Head of Laboratory in Institute of Molecular Biology, the other one, named Konstantin Chumakov, serves as the Associate Director for Research at the FDA Office of Vaccines in USA. They both work trying to create and organize the massive vaccination in various countries.

Dr. Konstantin Chumakov shared his memories: «While living in Washington, I had the pleasure and the honor of often seeing Albert Sabin and his wife, Eloise. I would often come to their apartment on New Mexico Avenue, for many different things: to deliver a letter from my father to Sabin – and back, to work on manuscripts – mine and his. We discussed a lot of scientific questions, and I watched how he worked. I was struck by the similarity of their characters, a perfect memory, passion for the cause, scientific candor and honesty, clarity of thinking, the similarity of manners and habits. Take for example the thoroughness with which Sabin edited manuscripts: he never made abbreviations, and hand-wrote all the words in full; if it was necessary to correct the word which is found on a page 10 times, he corrected all 10. In our computer age very few still do this – after all this is what word-processor and spell-checker are for, which leads to embarrassing errors with whole words and sentences misplaced or missing. Strikingly, my father did it exactly the same way. Writing with his only working left hand, he used up all the margins on the page, carefully verifying everything to the end. And sitting next to Sabin, I felt the warmth from their similarities, their common human kindness, which probably was the reason for their friendship, their faith in each other, which determined their shared success».

People do not consider polio a threat nowadays. The current scientists of today, all around the world, need to work together to end COVID-19 just like how they ended polio more than forty years ago. Politics should not control knowledge.


Dr. Konstantin Chumakov has actually provided me materials for this project.


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