Vaccinology has made great strides thanks to forward-thinking pioneers
The COVID-19 pandemic took the world by storm and reignited global interest in vaccines and vaccine development.
At the onset of the pandemic, the possibility of a quick-to-counter vaccine seemed slim. Vaccines typically take years to be approved for public release with rounds of testing required to ensure they is completely safe and effective.
Miraculously, perhaps, the first iteration of the COVID-19 vaccine was given emergency use authorization for people over the age of 16 in December 2020 — less than a year after countries around the globe went into lockdown and quarantine.
As of this writing, more than 4.8 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine have been administered across the globe (including 359 million in the U.S.). More than half of the country has been fully vaccinated.
Vaccinations, of course, have been a part of our lives long before COVID-19 and the “Fauci Ouchie”. The first vaccination was administered in 1796 by Edward Jenner, widely considered the founder of vaccinology. Jenner inoculated a 13-year-old boy with the cowpox virus. The first smallpox vaccine was developed two years later.
Schools and universities around the country require certain vaccinations — such as chickenpox, meningitis, hepatitis, and mumps, among others — to attend, while annual reminders to receive flu shots are familiar to all Americans.
With this in mind, BOSS is looking back at some of the leading contributors to vaccinology and recognizing the role they played in getting us where we are today.
Onesimus – Variolation
Onesimus was an enslaved African man who discovered in a roundabout way the concept of variolation. He introduced the method to Puritans in colonial Boston during the early 1700s, after he had the pus from an infected man rubbed onto an arm wound during a medical procedure. This method was used in Africa, China, and Turkey to inoculate patients from infection. Onesimus would go on to share this idea with the man he was enslaved by, Cotton Mather, who would go on to tout variolation as a way to curb the smallpox epidemic in 1721. Variolation would go on to be credited with saving many lives.
Edward Jenner – Smallpox
The aforementioned Jenner was a believer in variolation but hypothesized that it could be safer to be initially infected with a less-dangerous virus to humans. Jenner inoculated a young boy with the cowpox virus — which is not fatal to humans — before later exposing him to pus from a smallpox sore. The young boy did not get sick from the smallpox sore, showing that he had built sufficient immunity from the disease thanks to his initial inoculation. Jenner would go on to coin the term “vaccination.”
Louis Pasteur – Rabies
Pasteur is perhaps most known for inventing pasteurization, the process of boiling foods and liquids to rid them of impurities and dangerous pathogens. Pasteur also played a significant role in developing a vaccine against rabies, which was causing panic in and around Paris during the 1880s. Pasteur first experimented on rabbits by injecting their brains with the infected tissue of rabid dogs. He found a way to weaken the virus by drying it out, and went on to produce a vaccine still used today by attenuating the virus in the rabbits.
Max Theiler – Yellow Fever
Theiler used mice to research the yellow fever virus, which causes liver failure and gastrointestinal failure. Theiler was able to develop two vaccines for the virus, with the stronger version achieving widespread use by 1937. Theiler would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine thanks to his creation.
Thomas Francis – Influenza
Francis was an American microbiologist who analyzed respiratory samples from flu-infected children to figure out the effect it had on respiratory lining. Francis and his team created a vaccine effective against both strains of influenza. The vaccine was first used during World War II.
Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin – Polio
One of the more well-known names in vaccinology, Salk created a vaccine against polio during a time of great fear of the virus. Salk deactivated the virus before injecting it, a revolutionary idea at the time, as the belief was a live virus needed to be used. Despite the fact that the virus was not able to reproduce, it still was successful in tricking the immune system into creating antibodies to fight and defeat the virus. Salk’s vaccine was fully approved in 1955.
Albert Sabin, meanwhile, introduced a polio vaccine in the 1960s that could be administered orally. Sabin’s virus, contrary to Salk’s, contained a live version of the polio virus but was easier to administer and less expensive to produce. Sabin’s oral iteration would end up replacing Salk’s as the go-to vaccine by the early 1960s.
Maurice Hilleman – Measles
Hilleman was an American microbiologist who created more than 40 vaccines over the span of his career. Hilleman is most known for helping develop vaccines against mumps, measles, rubella, Hepatitis A and B, and chicken pox. Hilleman’s vaccinations are still recommended, and in some cases required, for children to take before they can enter the public school system in addition to being recommended for general health and safety.
Richard Mulligan and Paul Berg – DNA Technology
Mulligan and Berg are biochemists from Stanford who figured out how to repurpose recombinant DNA technology for the creation of vaccines. Mulligan and Berg were able to use DNA to create new molecules that could function uniquely. The biochemists experimented by injecting monkey cells with E. coli bacterial genes and eventually produced vaccines for hepatitis B, HPV and influenza.
Katalin Karikó – MRNA and COVID-19
Last, but certainly not least, Karikó is the pioneer behind the current COVID-19 vaccines. Karikó, a Hungarian scientist, extensively researched messenger RNA (mRNA) and discovered it could revolutionize vaccines. mRNA uses genetic coding to instruct our cells how to make certain proteins that will cause your body to produce antibodies thanks to an immune response. While other scientists were skeptical, Karikó would go on to collaborate with Pfizer and BioNTech to produce the first COVID-19 vaccine.