“Science without conscience is nothing but the ruin of the soul” – Francois Rabelais 1494-1553
Meredith Wadman, who has been writing about biomedical research politics for 20 years, starts The Vaccine Race with a harrowing story set in Philadelphia in the mid-1960s: It recounts the short-lived and miserable life of a baby girl born to a mother who contracted rubella (German measles) while pregnant. It makes a powerful impact on the reader, underlining the fact that the science conducted in laboratories is not divorced from the real world and real lives.
But this is in no way a particularly unusual or exceptional story – it is one that has been repeated countless times. But mercifully, that story now belongs largely to the past, all because of the rubella vaccine.
Wadman outlines the development of the vaccine, focusing on the tumultuous career of Leonard Hayflick who revolutionised vaccination by using human cells to develop vaccines; before that, monkey kidney cells were more commonly used but they bore the risk of lurking viruses.
Those human cells, though, had to be sourced from somewhere. They came on ice from Sweden in the tiny lungs of an aborted foetus. From these tiny lungs Hayflick developed the WI-38 cells that are still used more than half a century later.
The book weaves its way around the morally ambiguous and morally repugnant history of vaccines, from their commercialisation – something that was quite unusual at the time, and which brought Hayflick a lot of flak, ultimately derailing his career – to the horrific testing and experimentation carried out on people without their knowledge.
Healthy prisoners were infected with hepatitis, premature African-American babies were used as guinea-pigs for polio vaccines, intellectually challenged children were experimented upon. There is a litany of systemic human rights abuses at the heart of the development of vaccines, some of it continuing right up until the 1970s, all justified by the logic of “the greater good”, the ends justifying the means. Wadman peels back the cover on this little-known history in details that made this reader recoil.
But the scientists who carried out these experiments were not mad Dr Frankenstein outliers. They represented the cream of the scientific community, were lauded as heroes, and bank-rolled by the US government because they got the job done.
And we’re faced with the uncomfortable fact that many of these sacrifices were not in vain. Infant mortality is at its lowest rate since such things have been recorded. Diphtheria, whooping cough, polio, rubella – all have become rarities. But it’s unclear whether the same results could have been achieved by other methods.
Despite writing an entire book on the subject, Wadman suggests that rather than revile the actions of the scientists of the past, we should take the opportunity to look at what is being done at the moment. In what ways is science failing humanity at the moment? America’s opioid epidemic springs to mind as one example. Or the systemic drugging of school children into submission and conformity.
We are also faced with a new scourge, caused largely by the failures of science’s twin, education – the spread of those who actively mistrust and reject facts in favour of magical thinking. The anti-vaccination movement has been so rapid and virulent in its expansion that every reader probably knows of someone who stands against science, who takes any evidence as proof of conspiracy, while at the same time being the vectors of that which they fear the most. New outbreaks of measles and other diseases easily prevented by vaccination are on the rebound, not by any genetic mutation but by perhaps well-intentioned but ultimately very dangerous wilful ignorance.
As Wadman says, we can honour the contribution of those who were made to suffer, those who made sacrifices, often against their will or knowledge, so that the future can be a safer healthier place, by continuing to vaccinate children, by allowing them the lifespan and health that is and should be their birth right.
The Vaccine Race: How Scientists Used Human Cells To Combat Killer Viruses
Author: Meredith Wadman
Publisher: Doubleday, nonfiction science