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In COVID-19 Vaccine Race, Past Missteps Serve as Cautionary Tales

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Photo: Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Polio in the first half of the 1950s crippled or killed tens of thousands of children each year, prompting widespread fear of a disease cloaked in mystery. So when Jonas Salk rolled out his vaccine in 1955, it was justifiably regarded as a major breakthrough not only in science, but in the psyche of the country.

The excitement of Salk’s achievement, however, was partially undercut by a tragic, lesser-known chapter in the vaccine’s history, when a manufacturer of the vaccine inadvertently distributed a botched batch of the serum, leading to deaths and paralysis in dozens of children.

In the intervening years, developments in science and oversight have made vaccine production safer today than ever before. But more than half a century later, the process remains a balancing act. Each initiative begins with careful risk-benefit analysis, and the stakes – life and death – could not be higher.

Now, as scientists race to find a cure for the novel coronavirus, experts say a close examination of past missteps in America's battles against older diseases demonstrates the fragility of that balance -- and the lessons American officials should heed to protect a desperate citizenry.

“Knowledge comes with a price,” said Dr. Paul Offit, director of vaccine education at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

“Scientific breakthroughs are invariably associated with the human cost,” he continued, “because we learn as we go and you never know enough until you put things into people – and put them into millions of people.”

As of this report, more than 130 vaccines are being studied for COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization, including at least 10 that have progressed to human trials.

Despite the unprecedented speed of coronavirus vaccine development, experts tell ABC News that rigorous safeguards are in place to ensure that any vaccine given to the public is safe. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to a request for comment for this report.

But from limitations in the understanding of COVID-19 to the political, commercial and public pressures of rushing a vaccine to market, experts told ABC News they fear the circumstances at play in 2020 echo those of vaccines past – and with segments of the public already increasingly skeptical of vaccination, the margin for error is razor-thin.

'Desperate' for a Vaccine, But 'They Just Didn't Know the Science'

By the time it subsided, the Spanish Flu of 1918 and 1919 had taken the lives of some 675,000 Americans and 50 million worldwide, surpassing the casualty count from the recently concluded First World War and dwarfing the human toll of the current pandemic.

Limitations in scientists’ understanding of the virus hindered vaccine efforts, according to Dr. David Oshinsky, a medical historian at New York University – but a frightened public begged for solutions.

“People were desperate for a vaccine at that time, just like they are now,” Oshinsky said.

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Schedule21 Sep 2023