Jonas Salk And The Quest For The COVID-19 Vaccine

Salk in his laboratory
Salk in his laboratory
Kati Bohmbach

As some countries start to loosen preventative measures put in place against the spread of coronavirus, the need for a vaccine is becoming glaringly obvious for any hope of returning to some semblance of the lives we had before.

It's an abrupt return to the first half of the 20th century, when cures for infectious diseases, like smallpox and polio, were a kind of worldwide holy grail for scientists and ordinary families alike. The difference today is that an ever more connected planet has allowed the virus to spread at an unrivaled speed — the good news is that the race to find a vaccine is also moving faster than ever.

Until Jonas Salk and his team at the University of Pittsburgh discovered the vaccine for polio 65 years ago this month, the disease had ravaged the planet for more than four decades, infecting some 600,000 people annually. The response to polio wasn't so different from what we're seeing today, with the rolling closures of non-essential public spaces and schools amid flare-ups, as well as the separation of infected individuals from the rest of society. While Salk's polio vaccine took more than seven years of research and development, with technological advancements and global collaboration, scientists today are fixing to have their remedies ready and tested in a matter of months rather than decades.

Since the complete sequence of the novel coronavirus genome was published on January 11 by doctors working in Wuhan, the assumed epicenter of the outbreak, infectious disease experts worldwide have been working in collaboration to crack the code of the virus as quickly as possible. Because COVID-19 shares genetic similarities with other coronaviruses, like SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV, scientists have already had a headstart working on a vaccines, which may significantly shorten the timespan from having the genetic sequence to having sample vaccines ready to be tested.

Currently, there are more than 70 coronavirus vaccines in various stages of development around the world, according to the World Health Organisation. One biotech firm in the U.S., Moderna, began its first round of vaccine testing on volunteers in March and expects to be ready to enter the next phase of testing before summer.

One of the largest trials currently underway at the University of Oxford has over 500 volunteers set to be tested by mid-May. This could possibly pave the way for a vaccine to be ready for mass production by autumn of next year, significantly less than the original estimate of 12-18 months.

But there is still too little reliable information about COVID-19 for optimism, says Jean-Laurent Casanova, a French infectious disease researcher, who has begun clinical trials to determine the genetic factors that influence the response to the coronavirus. "There are so many unknowns in the immunity response. For example, we don't even know if the antibodies that appear after the infection are protectors (against the virus)," Casanova told Le Monde.

But, as we wait impatiently for life to start back up again, it's important to remember that speed isn't the only virtue we need for our coronavirus vaccine. Dr. Jonas Salk's son, who six decades ago was one of the very first children to be tested with his father's polio vaccine, is now the 75-year-old president of the Jonas Salk Legacy Foundation and a visiting professor of infectious disease and microbiology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Peter Salk told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that he's been encouraged by the massive worldwide collaboration that has kicked in for the hunt for a COVID-19 vaccine. But he also But he also said introducing new vaccines to the wider public requires scientific rigor. "We have to go as quickly as we can but we have to go cautiously. We shouldn't introduce a vaccine that came through just a basic clinical trial." Safety matters, and so too does staying power. Or as his father taught us, it's the difference between discovering a vaccine and the vaccine.

For the coming weeks, Worldcrunch will be delivering daily updates on the coronavirus pandemic from the best, most trusted international news sources — regardless of language or geography. To receive the daily Coronavirus global brief in your inbox, sign up here.

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.



• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.


"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.



For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.


Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

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We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.


Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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