Vaccinated: One Man's Quest to Defeat the World's Deadliest Diseases

Reviewed on , book by Paul A. Offit

Finally a pandemic-themed book that delivers, hurray!

Vaccinated is about the history of vaccines, in particular those in the 20th century, and in even more particular by one Maurice Hilleman. You might think that’s a limiting scope until you realize he’s behind the measles, hep a, hep b, meningitis, mumps, … and other vaccines. Guy’s a monster. He never received any Nobel prize (or much public recognition), because Nobel prizes are for scientific discoveries, not for people who the people who apply that science.

The fastest vaccine to be developed and widely spread was Hilleman’s mumps vaccine: 4 years. That was in the 1960s though. We’ve learned a few tricks since then.

Have you ever wondered about the egg allergy disclaimers on various vaccines? Well, let me in on and a massive simplification how vaccines are developed…

You take a virus. Say, run a swap down your daughter’s throat (as the opportunistic Hilleman did when he discovered his daughter had mumps, it’s hard not to imagine that he got a little excited). Then, you gotta weaken the virus.

You could weaken it by carving out small window into a chicken egg (as Hilleman did), letting it grow, then move the viruses to a new egg, repeat a couple dozen times… your hope is that the virus starts mutating to adapt to this new egg-y environment, making it more dangerous for eggs (?), but less so for humans.

The technique of exposing vaccinating by exposing yourself to a similar virus, adapted for a different animal/environement dates back to the 1700s. Then, they figured out that if you’re exposed to cowpox, you become immune to smallpox. The antibodies you create for cowpox beat smallpox, but cowpox virus is much less dangerous than smallpox for humans.

Once you’ve passed the virus through enough animal parts, you start injecting it into gradually larger groups of humans and keep record of whether they get sick more or less than a placebo group. In some cases, the virus hadn’t been weakned enough. In other cases, the right antibodies may not have developed.

Other vaccines were developed with monkey livers, mice, blood, … I can’t really find method to this madness. It almost reads like you just choose whatever you have at hand (?), or you’re most familiar with (Hilleman had lots of chicken growing up, so that’s what he crept to). Today, much more advanced techniques are used that the book doesn’t cover.

Many vaccines have also been developed with fetus cells, which gives the anti-vaxxers some momentum (careful hunch that anti-vax + pro life might have some overlap…). And while we’re on that topic, some dude started spewing bullshit in the 90s that children injected with vaccines are much, much more likely to develop autism. It couldn’t be because children are diagnosed with autism around the time they’re ready for vaccines, could it? Tons of studies have debunked this repeatedly since.

Just a thrilling read about the science that has saved an incredible amount of lives. Recommended!