Excerpt from The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Vaccine Race

Science, Politics, and the Human Costs of Defeating Disease

by Meredith Wadman

The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman X
The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2017, 448 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2018, 464 pages

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Zoë Fairtlough
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Print Excerpt


In the 1960s and 1970s the cells became the object of a bitter, epochal feud between Hayflick and the U.S. government, first over whether they were safe for vaccine making and then over who owned them. Hayflick's preternaturally proprietary feelings for the cells—he once described them as "like my children"—led him to defiantly decamp from the Wistar to a new job three thousand miles away at Stanford University with the entire stock of WI 38 cells. His escape infuriated the Wistar's director, Koprowski, who had his own money making designs on the cells.

Hayflick's flight with the cells would eventually make him the target of a career derailing investigation by the National Institutes of Health, which had funded his work deriving WI 38. 8 Then, just as the tug of war over ownership of the WI 38 cells peaked in the second half of the 1970s, profound changes occurred in attitudes and laws governing who could make money from biological inventions. In the space of very few years, biologists went from being expected to work for their salaries and the greater good—and nothing more—to being encouraged by their universities and the government to commercialize their inventions for the benefit of their institutions, the U.S. economy—and themselves.

Although the WI 38 cells were launched long before these changes took place—and eighteen years before the Supreme Court decreed that a living entity like a WI 38 cell could be patented—that is not to say that money has not been made from them. The huge drug company Merck in particular has made billions of dollars by using the WI 38 cells to make the rubella vaccine that is part of the vaccine schedule for U.S. babies and preschoolers—ensuring more than seven million injections each year, not including those in more than forty other countries where the Merck vaccines is sold. The Wistar Institute too until the late 1980s enjoyed a handsome royalty stream from vaccines made by its scientists using the WI 38 cells—including a much improved rabies vaccine that replaced sometimes dangerous injections. Cell banks today charge several hundred dollars for a tiny vial of the cells.

But the tale of the WI 38 cells involves much more than money—and more too than the highly unusual story of Hayflick, the iconoclastic scientist who launched them. It involves the silent, faceless Swedish woman whose fetus was used to derive the cells without her consent. It involves the dying patients into whose arms the WI 38 cells were injected with the misguided aim of proving that the cells did not cause cancer. It touches on the ordinary American chil dren who perished from rabies before WI 38 cells were used to make a better vaccine, and on the U.S. military recruits who died from adenovirus infections when the Pentagon stopped giving service members the vaccine against that virus, made in WI 38 cells. It involves the abortion opponents who, now as then, harbor a deep moral abhorrence of any vaccines made using human fetal cells.

It is also about Stanley Plotkin, a young scientist who stubbornly fought powerful competitors by using the WI 38 cells to develop a superior rubella vaccine—and the purely political roadblocks that nearly stopped him. And it is about the one , two , and three year old orphans on whom Plotkin tested that vaccine, with the blessing of the archbishop of Philadelphia. It involves the irony of the untold millions of miscarriages, still births, and infant deaths that have been prevented by a rubella vaccine made using cells from an aborted fetus.


These pages are full of medical experiments that we find abhorrent today. Young, healthy prisoners are injected with hepatitis tainted blood serum; premature African American babies with experimental polio vaccine; intellectually disabled children with untried rubella vaccine.

We recoil in horror. It is easy to condemn out of hand the scientists who conducted these experiments on the most voiceless and powerless among us. And their actions were in many cases horrifying and inexcusable. But it is more instructive—and perhaps more likely to prevent similar betrayals in the

Excerpted from The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman. Copyright © 2017 by Meredith Wadman. Excerpted by permission of Viking. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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