In the War with Polio who was the Hero? Salk or Sabin?
I have been following up the Nobel Prizes announced since last week. The surprise that was in store for all of us with regard to the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature for Bob Dylan was quite frankly refreshing and exciting.
As I was reading up about some Nobel Prize history, I came across this list of very famous people who deserved the Nobel Prize, but who weren’t awarded one. On that list was Gandhi as anticipated as well as my main man, Physicist Stephen Hawking. One name that was expected and yet which irked me the most was that of Jonas Salk, the “pioneering scientist” who is hailed in popular American folklore for having “invented” the Polio vaccine and for having virtually “eradicated” the dreaded polio. He was nominated thrice – in 1954, 1956 and the late 60s. Some have argued that he should have at least got the Nobel Prize for Peace for his contribution for his pioneering work in having removed the fear of the disease that was crippling countless children across America in the 20s through 50s. How can a National Hero be snubbed?
As it happens, the real story is a very complex. Very few talk about Albert Sabin who developed the live attenuated polio virus oral drops, the same which is in use in India in our immunisation schedule. It was Sabin’s vaccine that eradicated Polio from the face of the earth except the last 2 countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan now.
Salk and Sabin were bitter enemies who openly disliked each other. Salk was a public relations man with the support of the US President’s March of Dimes initiative and millions of dollars, not to mention the doting press. Salk appeared to be shy, and shunning the media, but he actually craved publicity. When asked by the media, ‘Who owned the patent?”, Salk replied, “ The people do. There is no patent. Do you patent the sun?”
The truth is that Salk could not have patented the Polio vaccine even if he wanted to. He did not invent the vaccine.
Dr. Sven Gard, Professor of Virology at the Karolinska Institute, and member of the Nobel recommendation Committee wrote an 8 page analysis of Salk’s work, in which he concluded that “Salk has not in the development of his methods introduced anything that is principally new, but only exploited discoveries made by others.” He concluded that “Salk’s publications on the poliomyelitis vaccine cannot be considered as Prize worthy”.
Why didn’t Sabin get the Nobel prize? Dr. Sven Gard testified as an expert in the Sabin polio vaccine trial of Griffin v United States against Sabin. Gard accepted no money for his expert testimony and paid for his own airfare and expenses. In addition Gard told the court that `Salk`s polio vaccine probably caused more cases of polio than it prevented.” Also Gard knew all about the details of the field trials conducted by both Salk and Sabin and how they had manipulated their data to gloss over the safety of the vaccine. That is why neither Sabin or Salk received the Nobel Prize.
The Nobel prize instead went to John Enders, Thomas Weller, and Frederick Robbins in 1954 “for their discovery of the ability of poliomyelitis viruses to grow in cultures of various types of tissue.” This discovery made way for both Salk and Sabin to invent their respective vaccines.
In the late 1960s, Salk, Sabin, Koprowski, and Gard were nominated for the Nobel Prize for poliovirus vaccines. Gard refused to be nominated, because he felt that they did not discover anything new, but only built upon the seminal discoveries of other scientists. This effectively killed the nomination. The developers of the poliovaccine Salk and Sabin were never again seriously considered for a Nobel Prize.
For me Gard is a personal hero who stood for the truth and who had integrity enough to recuse himself from the Nobel prize. Sabin is also a hero. I love his tenacity, passion and ingenuity in sending the vaccines to the Soviet Union and Japan for mass immunisation that gave results when America rejected him and snubbed him. He showed that the Sabin vaccine is indeed the magic bullet. It was his vaccine that finally saved the day and millions of children from permanent disability. It must be mentioned that the later versions of the vaccine are safe and effective.
The story of the Nobel Prize and War against Polio spans 50 years of rivalry and innuendo between three very complicated persons Salk, Sabin and Gard. It would be naive to look at them through the good or bad lenses, as they operated within the space, time, opportunity and necessity continuum of the day with varying consequences. However the lasting legacy is that of Sabin’ without a doubt. Someday I will make a science thriller film with this awesome plot.