Trial risks, scientific competition and politicization: the thorny way of live vaccine against poliomyelitis in the USSR in 1950-1960s

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Introduction. The article is devoted to the problems of testing the live poliomyelitis vaccine that took place in the 1950s in the USSR. The problems of the trials have again become topical because of the pandemic of the novel coronavirus. Methods and materials. Using narrative and historical-comparative methods to analyze materials from the archives of the USSR Ministry of Health Care and the digitized archive of the American virologistSabin, the author of the article looked into some problems related to the trials of the live polio vaccine. Analysis . As a result of the analysis of historical sources, the following problems of trials were found out: high risks of mass use of the live vaccine; lack of agreement between scientists and medical officials on the possibility and necessity of testing; difficulties in relations between an organizer of the tests (M. Chumakov) and some officials from the Ministry of Health Care of the RSFSR; the problems in Soviet-American relations which affected the scientific cooperation; difficult relations between the Soviet organizers of the tests (M. Chumakov and A. Smorodintsev); troubles that arose in relations between A. Sabin and A. Smorodintsev in connection with the politicization of the vaccination issue; ethical challenges of human trials. Results . The USSR took huge risks during the mass trials of the live polio vaccine, which was Soviet science and population significant contribution to the world fight against poliomyelitis. Mass trials took place in the USSR during the Cold War, which, however, did not become an obstacle to scientific cooperation between the USSR and the USA in this sphere. The success of the polio vaccine trials was used by the Soviet state to increase its prestige. At some points, representatives of the Soviet state and media even “forgot” that the vaccine was developed in American virology laboratories, calling Soviet organizers of vaccine trials its developers. Ethical norms of experiments on humans in the 1950-1960s were just being formed, so some of them could be called violations by modern standards. However, the success of the tests closed the question of those violations.


Poliomyelitis, vaccine, smorodintsev, chumakov, sabin

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IDR: 149142907   |   DOI: 10.15688/jvolsu4.2023.2.16

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