History of Vaccines and Past Pandemics


Booster is a series exploring the COVID-19 vaccine, and what it means for young people — from the science behind it to how it impacts our lives.

With the one-year mark of the coronavirus first confirmed case in the U.S. in the rearview mirror, we’re finally seeing the distribution of the thing that will allow us to return to semi-normal life: the COVID-19 vaccine. Experts are adamant that a vaccine isn’t a panacea to the ills we’re facing as a society right now — there are still a host of government-created crises that we’ll be addressing for years, between the economic recession, unemployment, and the student debt crises, just to name a few. But a pandemic vaccine is not only a public health tool, it’s a political football, and the politics of vaccine efforts of the past can help us understand where we’re at now.

For most of human history, viruses and pandemics were dealt with the old fashioned way: By slowly letting the infectious disease run its course, killing many. Now we have vaccines, the highly effective protective measure against viral infections, which we use in our everyday lives to inoculate against measles, mumps, HPV, and other viruses.

The last time that we had a very severe global pandemic was the Spanish Flu in 1918, but at the time the study of viruses was just taking off, so the government didn’t attempt a large scale vaccination effort of its people. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, scientists developed the framework for the methodology that’s used to create vaccinations today, information that helped create vaccinations during three later (though less severe) flu pandemics in the late 1950s, 1960s, and again in 2009.

Even though the U.S. had access to a vaccine to combat the 1957 flu pandemic, a 2006 paper in the journal Pathogens analyzing the response noted that a feeble rollout plan inhibited the vaccine’s impact on the virus’s spread. But by and large, there’s a direct relationship between getting vaccinated and slowing or stopping the spread of viruses and pandemic viruses. According to an American Journal of Public Health research paper published in 2008, “each influenza pandemic season was less lethal than the prior one.” Vaccines are directly related to decline in virus mortality, but pandemic virus mortality is also about the size of an infected population, incubation period of the virus, and so many other factors that determine public health.

Moreover, vaccines help prevent other pandemics from inciting higher death tolls. Research of 20th century pandemics demonstrates that mortality rates were higher among demographic groups that had not been exposed to previous pandemic viruses, suggesting that some immunity resulted from exposure. Vaccines mimic this natural immune system response.

The U.S. federal government plays a central role in disseminating public health information, funding state and local virus prevention and mitigation efforts, and approving vaccine research and trials. But this hasn’t always worked in presidents’ political favor: In the late 1970s, ahead of what scientists predicted would be another possible pandemic attributed to a swine flu, President Ford prepared to roll out a vaccine as a way to prove political prowess. However, the pandemic didn’t materialize as predicted and to many, Ford looked like an ineffectual leader or fear-mongerer rather than a forward-thinking planner, ultimately costing him his reelection.

Pandemic management and vaccine rollout was also a political test for the Obama-Biden administration, which juggled an economic recession, a stalled Congress, and a pandemic flu all at the same time. In 2009, a pandemic flu from the HN1N virus, was responsible for infecting an estimated 22 million Americans, hospitalizing approximately 36,000 children and teens up to 17 years old, and killing upwards as many as 500 kids and teens, pushing the government to come up with a solution to the mysterious illness. A vaccine could easily protect vulnerable populations against infection, but vaccination efforts — a product of politics — played just a small role in helping the country to emerge from the pandemic. Some of the issues around vaccine rollout came down to planning and political messaging. According to an article in Politico last May, the initial shipment of the vaccine was in a nasal spray form that wasn’t suitable for the very people most in need of them, like children with asthma, and shipments weren’t strategically directed to densely populated communities and neighborhoods with high infection rates. In California, at least 25  of the city and county health agencies in the state received less than half of the vaccine doses they required, according to a Los Angeles Times article at the time in 2009. The government formed partnerships with private corporations to help facilitate some vaccine distribution to their employees, which prompted U.S. House Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ), then-chair of a House health subcommittee to say, “I’m afraid when you have these corporate initiatives, it’s not primarily needs-based.”



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