How America’s First Polio Vaccine Led to the Growing Vaccine Crisis

Cutter Incident: How America's First Polio Vaccine Led to the Growing Vaccine Crisis: Paul A. Offit According to a panel of experts who appeared on this weekend’s edition of Meet the Press, we are critically under-prepared in the face of the impending, and some say inevitable, outbreak of an avian flu pandemic. Dr. Anthony Fauci of the NIH says that “we don’t have the vaccine production capacity at this time to make enough vaccine for the people who might need it.” Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt says that “we will not have the capacity to produce three hundred million doses of vaccine”–that is, enough to protect all Americans–“for three to five years.”

What accounts for this growing crisis in vaccine availability? In his book The Cutter Incident, Paul A. Offit recounts for the first time a devastating episode in 1955 at Cutter Laboratories in Berkeley, California, that has led many pharmaceutical companies to abandon vaccine manufacture. After the tragedy that occurred when 200,000 people were inadvertently injected with live virulent polio virus–70,000 became ill, 200 were permanently paralyzed, and 10 died–one jury’s verdict set in motion events that eventually suppressed the production of vaccines already licensed and deterred the development of new vaccines that hold the promise of preventing other fatal diseases.

In the latest issue of Science, Olin Kew, the man currently in charge of eliminating polio worldwide, writes, “Offit’s book is a comprehensive and readily readable account that seamlessly moves from historical narrative through technical exposition, mystery thriller, courtroom drama, and legal review to social commentary.”  A review of the book in this past Sunday’s New York Post calls it “a compelling plea” and “a fascinating and highly readable account of the development of the polio vaccine.”

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