Representative image (AP)
MOSCOW: To the boys, it was just a sugary treat. To their parents, prominent medical researchers, what happened in their Moscow apartment that day in 1959 was a vital experiment with countless lives at stake — and their own children as guinea pigs.
“We formed a kind of line,” Dr Peter Chumakov, who was 7 at the time, recalled in an interview. Into each waiting mouth, a parent popped a sugar cube laced with weakened poliovirus — an early vaccine against a dreaded disease. “I was eating it from the hands of my mother.” Today, that same vaccine is gaining renewed attention from researchers — including those brothers, who all grew up to be virologists — as a possible weapon against the new coronavirus, based in part on research done by their mother, Dr Marina Voroshilova.
Voroshilova established that the live polio vaccine had an unexpected benefit that could be relevant to the current pandemic: People who got the vaccine did not become sick with other viral illnesses for a month or so afterward. She took to giving the boys vaccine each fall as protection against flu.
Now some scientists in several countries are taking a keen interest in the idea of repurposing existing vaccines, like the one with live poliovirus and another for tuberculosis, to see if they can provide at least temporary resistance to the coronavirus. Russians are among them. Experts advise that the idea must be approached with caution. “We’re better off with a vaccine that induces specific immunity,” Dr Paul Offit, a co-inventor of a vaccine against the rotavirus, said over the phone. Any benefits from a repurposed vaccine, he said, are “much shorter-lived and incomplete” compared with a tailored vaccine. Also, in extremely rare cases, the weakened poliovirus used in the vaccine can mutate into a more dangerous form, cause polio and infect other people. The risk of paralysis is estimated at 1 in 2.7 million vaccinations.
Still, Dr Robert Gallo, a leading advocate of testing the polio vaccine against Covid-19, said that repurposing vaccines is “one of the hottest areas of immunology”. Gallo said even if the weakened poliovirus confers immunity for only a month or so, “it gets you over the hump, and it would save a lot of lives.”