George Mikan on vaccine history and the disease’s shame story

I think a lot of people in pharmaceuticals are facing the twin challenge of making more safe, effective drugs to make the world healthier but at the same time dealing with public hysteria, which…

George Mikan on vaccine history and the disease's shame story

I think a lot of people in pharmaceuticals are facing the twin challenge of making more safe, effective drugs to make the world healthier but at the same time dealing with public hysteria, which has led to a backlash against new drugs.

I am interested in how people could be surprised or excited about research happening in Utah or Switzerland that tells us things about how vaccination is applied around the world and how it works in different cultures.

The book is most interesting in its look at the people behind the public conception of the history of modern vaccines. It is a triumph for the independent research that characterises the early days of the history of modern vaccine development. Those people deserve considerable credit for what they have done.

One example, in which my own research serves to be of assistance, is the relationship between tuberculosis (TB) vaccines and what is now known as GPS toxicity in genetically engineered animals.

One of the big contributors to the preponderance of GPS toxicity in genetically engineered animals, and especially in highly sensitive experimental animals, was the creation of a new strain of the TB virus for use in the vaccine. My research has helped people understand that the TB virus currently causing GPS toxicity in livestock is not the one used for vaccine production but that has saved lives, added to our understanding of TB and opened doors for future vaccine research.

The vaccine has been tested in many different animals, including domestic poultry. The overall results have been pretty good, with a major exception, since the vaccine has been tested on the country’s most famous flocks of poultry, which were raised under conditions that were heavy on FGM, or female genital mutilation.

All of the birds in those flocks were inoculated with the vaccine, and except for one, the rest died of FGM. Not only has this had an adverse effect on the rest of the poultry, which we take to be a factor in the GPS toxicity, but the it also has sent a bad message for future vaccine research. This is most likely why the vaccine hasn’t been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for human use, despite being submitted years ago.

It is really going to take this history of why the vaccine should not have been given to FGM-attacking birds to garner support for trials in other populations. The FGM episode is ironic in that you need to be careful in using TB vaccine. Even with an unsafe vaccine, it will wipe out the indigenous population if it is not given in a careful way. You will bring it back to life and make a whole lot of people ill and dying.

The story of early vaccine development is fascinating and well worth the time to read. The world is just one quarter of the way towards solving our most important health problems, and there are lots of ways to do it. There will be fights along the way, but I believe they can be won.

Dr George Mikan is an epidemiologist and reader in Infectious Diseases at Imperial College London

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