Dubai: On August 11, 2020, Russia launched its coronavirus vaccine, dubbed the “Sputnik V”.
The vaccine’s name is no coincidence. It's a throwback to the time when Russia sent the first man-made satellite to space, on October 4, 1957, making it the first country to do so.
It led to the space race, which then charged the US to put a man on the Moon, the Earth's natural satellite, 13 years later, on July 20, 1969.
It was the height of a bitter Cold War rivalry between the two superpowers. In the 1960s, the US and the former Soviet Union threatened to blow each other up with nukes. It nearly led to an all-out war of mutually-assured destruction (MAD).
The enmity culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis, a 13-day confrontation between the two superpowers in 1962 that came as a result of the Soviet ballistic missile deployment in Cuba.
But in the midst of this, US and Russian scientists — experts in virology — also worked together on at least two vaccines that helped saved the world.
When did the US and Russian virologists work together?
Secretly, top virologists from the US and Russia were also collaborating to develop vaccines, specifically against polio and smallpox, two of the major infectious diseases afflicting mankind till then.
Most kids today are given an oral polio vaccine, which came directly out of the US-Russian collaboration, according to the open-access peer-reviewed Public Library of Science (PLOS) Journal of Neglected Tropical Diseases.
The paper, published in 2017, shows other US-Russian joint efforts in the medical field, a trend we now see with hyper-collaborations between scientists across continents in the face of COVID-19.
When Russians and Americans worked on vaccines
Despite the rivalry, and threats to blow each other up, the US and Russians kept open channels in several fields – sports, the arts, literature, and other humanitarian endeavors. The joint US-Russian initiatives had one aim: develop, test, and deliver life-saving vaccines that targeted these two ancient scourges of humankind.
The two life-saving vaccines became some the most productive engagements by the bitter rivals that saved humanity. The joint work, however, was “mostly clandestine”, according to the journal.
The result: smallpox was almost complete eradicated, and polio was mostly eliminated. It was known as “Cold War vaccine diplomacy”.
When did it happen?
In 1956, a year before the Soviet satellite Sputnik was launched, the US State Department and its counterpart in the Soviet Union facilitated links between their virologists.
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Who were the scientists involved?
On the US side was virologist Dr. Albert Sabin. There were two virologists from the Soviet side: Drs. Mikhail Chumakov and Anatoli Smorodintsev.
They collaborated in producing the oral polio vaccine (OPV). The production was made at such a scale that allowed them to test it first on millions of Soviet citizens. That US-Russian collaboration took place under the watchful eyes of a suspected KGB (erthwhile Russian spy agency) operative.
What happened then?
In 1956, the Russian virologists visited Sabin in his Cincinnati Children’s Hospital research lab.
The Russians promised Sabin an invitation to Russia. When Sabin received the invite, he jumped at the chance. After two intensive FBI interrogations, Sabin was able to travel to Leningrad and Moscow in June of 1956. He spent a month in Russia meeting with scientists, giving lectures, and all the time lobbying for his vaccine.
Within two years, a shipment of Sabin’s polio virus strains arrived in the Soviet Union on dry ice.
What about vaccine trials?
The Sabin vaccine was scaled up and produced in Chumakov’s laboratory. Clinical testing required him to bypass the then-obstructionist Soviet Minister of Health and go directly to the Kremlin leadership for large-scale trials to proceed.
Through the efforts of Sabin and Chumakov, the vaccine was tested initially on millions of school children. Subsequently, it was also given to young adults.
What is significance of the oral polio vaccine (OPV)?
In the first half of the 20th century polio epidemics periodically crippled many parts of the world, including US cities. Children were especially vulnerable, but the disease also struck adults, including US president Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1921.
On October 6, 1956, the American virology expert Dr. Sabin announced that his live-virus OPV is ready for mass testing. It soon supplanted the Salk vaccine.
Dr. Sabin gave his three strains of "attenuated" virus to Russian virologists, Dr. Mikhail Chumakov (founder of Chumakov Institute of Poliomyelitis and Viral Encephalitides), and his wife Dr. Marina Voroshilova.
Dr. Chumakov vaccinated himself, though it was intended primarily for children. His wife, Dr. Voroshilova gave it to their three sons and several nieces and nephews (their three sons have all become virologists today in Russia).
It was then that Dr. Chumakov managed to persuade a senior Soviet official, Anastas Mikoyan, to proceed with wider trials. in 1961, after it was proved safe in the USSR, the US kicked off oral polio vaccinations.
Polio viruses have afflicted mankind for millennia, with polio afflictions recorded in ancient Egypt. Its effects range from complete recovery to death. Intermediate possibilities are mild after-effects, moderate to severe paralysis of a limb or limbs, or paralyzed chest muscles, which crippled millions of children for centuries. Until the 1950s, polio victims were still using lifesavers known as “iron lungs”.
Today, the oral polio vaccines are the predominant vaccine used in the fight to eradicate polio. OPV is a more convenient vorm, given as liquid drops via the mouth.
What was the role of the WHO then?
A representative of the World Health Organization (WHO, founded in 1948), confirmed the safety of the trials and the vaccine’s ability to prevent polio.
The vaccine has now been used to stop 99% of polio transmission in most places, except in a few areas of the world.
What else came out of the Russian-US collaboration?
Freeze-drying of vaccines became the standard from this point on. Following the licensure of the polio vaccine, Soviet scientists developed a unique process for preserving the smallpox vaccine in harsh environments.
This enabled the production of hundreds of millions of doses of freeze-dried vaccine.
From 1968 to 1975, trials on 320,000 people, overseen by virologist Dr. Marina Voroshilova, found a reduced mortality from flu in people immunised with other vaccines, including the oral polio vaccine (OPV).
The Soviet Union honoured Dr Voroshilova for her work. Dr. Voroshilova’s and Dr. Chumakov’s work greatly influenced their sons, as all of them became virologists themselves, who believe in self-testing.
Dr. Alexei Chumakov worked as a cancer researcher in the US for much of his career. In Moscow, he developed a vaccine against hepatitis E, which he tested first on himself.
His other brother, Dr. Konstantin Chumakov, is now associate director of the US Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Vaccine Research and Review, the agency tasked to check coronavirus vaccines for use by Americans.
What was the significance of this invention by Russian scientists?
This freeze-drying of vaccines proved to be a major breakthrough in the effectiveness of vaccines and their widespread distribution across the world, even in harsh environments.
It was considered a key enabling technology to the campaign that eradicated smallpox by 1977, led by American public health physician D. A. Henderson.
What was the role of Russian scientists in the eradication of the global scourge of smallpox?
In 1958, Russian virologist Viktor Zhdanov, then the deputy health minister of the USSR, first proposed the concept of smallpox “eradication” to the WHO and led vaccine production.
The urgency of research on polio vaccine came on top of other considerations. In the face of polio, and the way the virus ravaged children, science stood on neutral ground.
How was it funded?
Mainly through donations, according to the PLOS article.
What is the relevance of their collaboration in the time of COVID?
Today, millions of doses of the coronavirus vaccine had been assured for low and middle-income, thanks to donations from humanitarian and philanthropic platforms like GAVI, the vaccine alliance. That way, even poor countries would have access to whatever vaccine may eventually be licensed for use.
How else did the Russian and US scientists collaborate to face a common problem?
From the 1980s, joint US–Russian health activities continued, with a major focus on tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS prevention, as well as the prevention of other sexually transmitted diseases.
In 2009, a Bilateral Presidential Commission (BPC) between the US and Russia was established, which included joint cooperation in the areas of polio eradication, malaria control, studies on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) related to alcohol and tobacco consumption, and expanding the use of mobile phone technology for maternal health care.
The BPC was subsequently strengthened in 2011 through a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace public–private task force.
What lesson does it offer for today’s generation of scientists?
The US-Russian collaboration that push back the "double whammy" of polio and smallpox offers one of compelling stories of joint vaccine science diplomacy and development.
Today, though the polio and smallpox strains may remain in the population or in the wild, access to oral polio vaccine has become widespread.
The work of scientists, no matter where they come from, alongside manufacturing efficiencies and large-scale production allows for economies of scale. As a result, the price of a polio shot has gone down to about $0.50 each, and is now leading to global eradication efforts.
When confronted with a common need, even bitter rivals have reason to find way to become friends indeed.
- COVID-19 is an common enemy that emerged to threaten mankind, in all areas of life.
- It also presents an opportunity for joint scientific efforts to eliminate this newly-emerged diseases.
- Science, through methodical experimentation and observation, stands on a neutral ground, but has proven extremely helpful in eliminating diseases
- Common problems need common solutions, and breakthroughs can sometimes emerge from bitter rivalries.
- Vaccines, when done right, have proven effective in pushing back diseases that afflict humanity.