Among The 1st To Get A Polio Vaccine, Peter Salk Says Don't Rush A COVID-19 Shot | KUNC

Among The 1st To Get A Polio Vaccine, Peter Salk Says Don't Rush A COVID-19 Shot

Jun 20, 2020
Originally published on June 20, 2020 2:07 pm

When Dr. Jonas Salk first began testing his potential polio vaccine in 1953, he brought it home from his nearby lab at the University of Pittsburgh.

"I just hated injections," recalled his son Peter Salk, 76, and the oldest of three brothers. "So my father came home with polio vaccine and some syringes and needles that he sterilized on the kitchen stove, boiling them in water, and lined us kids up and then administered the vaccine."

Peter Salk, then 9, wasn't old enough to understand fully why he and his brothers were getting this injection. Yet he remembers that shot like no other.

"Somehow the needle must have missed a nerve, and I didn't feel it. And so that has fixed that moment in my mind," he said.

As the world awaits a vaccine for COVID-19, Salk recalled an era when polio terrorized the country every summer.

Kids were hit hardest. In the worst single year, 1952, nearly 60,000 children were infected. Many were paralyzed, and more than 3,000 died. Frightened parents kept their children away from swimming pools, movie theaters and other public places.

When Salk and his brothers were injected, it marked the beginning of the end of polio. But it was a protracted process. What followed was the largest human trial ever, with nearly 2 million American children taking part. Finally, on April 12, 1955, nearly two years after the Salk boys had received their shots, the vaccine was declared "safe, effective and potent."

"What happened in the country at that moment was remarkable. There was jubilation," Salk said. "There was such a sense of relief that this fear, which had been hanging over everyone's heads for years and years and years, was finally lifted."

It's one of the great vaccine success stories, and Jonas Salk became one of the most celebrated men in America.

Polio was effectively wiped out in the U.S. by the early 1960s. Since then, it's been steadily eliminated around the world. These days, only a small number of cases crop up annually, mostly in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

Bill Gates speaks in 2011 in New York with descendants of key figures in the fight against polio — Peter Salk, left, and Cathy Hively, granddaughter of Basil O'Connor, who helped to battle the disease through the March of Dimes.
Seth Wenig / AP

A word of warning

Peter Salk, who lives in La Jolla, Calif., is also a doctor and a part-time professor of infectious diseases at the University of Pittsburgh, and he heads the Jonas Salk Legacy Foundation.

To stay safe, he continues to hang out at home with his wife, Ellen, even as government restrictions ease and shops and restaurants in the area begin to reopen.

Given the long family experience in this field, Peter Salk said he is optimistic about a COVID-19 vaccine. But he cautioned about racing ahead before one is fully tested.

"I congratulate the impulse on the part of the federal government right now to want to speed things up as much as possible," he said. "What concerns me is knowing that in the past there have been unexpected things that have taken place with vaccines that had not been foreseen."

His father, who died in 1995, worked on his vaccine for seven years before it was approved. His research was funded by charitable donations, and he didn't seek a patent.

When journalist Edward R. Murrow asked Jonas Salk who owned the patent, the doctor replied: "The people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?"

Then, as now, the need to vaccinate was urgent. But there were delays, Peter Salk noted.

"The vaccine was introduced, but haltingly. It wasn't done the way my father would have liked to have seen — 'Let's just get this out and get it into every single child's arm,' " Salk said.

At one point, a government health official was called before a Senate committee and asked why it was taking so long. Peter Salk picked up a book and cited a passage about the episode:

"As to her failure to anticipate the need for adequate supplies of vaccine earlier than she did, she replied heatedly, 'I think no one could have foreseen the public demand.' "

Peter Salk said it took roughly a decade for the polio vaccine to be researched, tested and widely distributed to the American public. He said he hopes it will happen much faster this time.

Follow Greg Myre @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

As we wait for coronavirus vaccines, some Americans can still recall a time when polio terrorized the country every summer. Children were hit hardest, with thousands who were paralyzed or died. Frightened parents kept their children away from swimming pools, movie theaters and other public places. Nobody knows this story better than Peter Salk. He was one of the first to receive the polio vaccine. It was discovered by his father. NPR's Greg Myre spoke with him.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: After years of research, Dr. Jonas Salk was just beginning to test a potential polio vaccine in 1953. He brought it home from his lab at the University of Pittsburgh and injected it into his three young sons. Peter Salk was the oldest at age 9.

PETER SALK: I just hated injections. And my father came home with polio vaccine and some syringes and needles that he sterilized on the kitchen stove by boiling in water, lined us kids up and then administered the vaccine.

MYRE: He wasn't old enough to fully understand why he and his brothers were getting this shot. Yet he remembers it like no other.

P SALK: As much as I hated injections, somehow, the needle must've missed a nerve. And I didn't feel it. And so that has fixed that moment in my mind.

MYRE: That moment also marked the beginning of the end of polio. Widespread testing followed. And two years later, the government declared the vaccine safe and effective against one of the most feared diseases in the country.

P SALK: What happened in the country at that moment was remarkable. There was jubilation. There was such a sense of relief that this fear, which had been hanging over everyone's heads for years and years and years, was finally lifted.

MYRE: It's one of the great vaccine success stories. And Jonas Salk became one of the most celebrated men in America. Peter Salk is now 76 and lives in La Jolla, Calf. He's also a doctor and a part-time professor of infectious diseases at the University of Pittsburgh, the same place his father did his groundbreaking work. Salk is optimistic about a COVID vaccine. But he's been staying at home the past couple months. And he cautions against racing ahead with a vaccine that hasn't been fully tested.

P SALK: What concerns me is knowing that, in the past, there have been unexpected things that have taken place with vaccines that had not been foreseen.

MYRE: Jonas Salk worked on his vaccine for seven years before it was approved. His research was funded by charitable donations. And the journalist Edward R. Murrow asked him about a patent for his discovery.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EDWARD R MURROW: Who owns the patent on this vaccine?

JONAS SALK: The people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?

MYRE: Then, as now, the need to vaccinate was urgent. But there were delays, Peter Salk recalls.

P SALK: The vaccine was introduced but haltingly. It wasn't done the way my father would have liked to have seen. Let's just get this out and get it into every single child's arms.

MYRE: At this point in our conversation, Salk picked up a book and read a passage about this period. Some in Congress were impatient, he said. At one point, a government health official was called before a Senate committee. She was asked, why was it taking so long?

P SALK: (Reading) As to her failure to anticipate the need for adequate supplies of vaccine earlier than she did, she replied heatedly, I think no one could have foreseen the public demand.

MYRE: Peter Salk says it took roughly a decade for the polio vaccine to be researched, tested and distributed widely to the American public. He hopes it'll happen much faster this time. Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.