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Coronavirus Chaos

Can Vaccines Fail? History Tells Us They Can and Will.

Can Vaccines Fail?
Scheme of a coronavirus. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

There’s no question that the mass vaccination campaign across the United States represents the best hope for ending the yearlong coronavirus pandemic.

The health benefits from getting inoculated are enormous—some of which can include preventing you from getting COVID-19 in the first place or from becoming seriously ill or dying due to the disease.

The shot will also add to the number of people in a particular community who are protected from getting COVID-19, which makes it more difficult for the disease to spread and mutate and eventually contributes to achieving herd immunity.

Can Vaccines Fail?

Previous vaccines for other diseases have already done wonders in saving lives. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, since 2011, vaccines have averted 23.3 million deaths worldwide.

Such lofty numbers surely deserve praise, but at the same time, there certainly have been many hiccups along the way—sometimes deadly mistakes that scientists have used as a learning experience.

With that in mind, here are several instances in which vaccines failed humankind big-time.

Cutter Incident

In the 1955 Cutter Incident, some batches of polio vaccine given to the public contained live poliovirus—even though they had passed the required safety testing. More than two hundred fifty cases of polio were attributed to vaccines produced by one particular company, Cutter Laboratories. The mistake resulted in many cases of paralysis, and the vaccine was recalled as soon as new cases of polio were detected. The Cutter Incident became a defining moment in the history of vaccine manufacturing and led to the creation of a more robust system of regulating future vaccines.

Inactivated Vaccines for Measles

Next on the list is the widespread vaccination campaign against the childhood disease measles. In the early 1960s, thousands of children received a particular inactivated vaccine, so if they were eventually exposed to the actual measles virus, they developed atypical measles. This was characterized by high fever, severe abdominal pain, and lung inflammation and often required hospitalization. That particular vaccine was eventually withdrawn.

Dengue Fever Vaccination Program

In 2017, the Philippines quickly halted a school-based dengue fever vaccination program after reports of complications and several deaths linked to a product called Dengvaxia. The French manufacturer, Sanofi Pasteur, later stated that the vaccine posed a risk to those without prior infection from one of the disease’s four stereotypes. The result was that it actually increased the risk that a child would contract a more severe form of the disease.

Vaccination Attempt of RSV

The final case deals with the vaccination attempt of the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Children in the 1960s who were treated with one particular type of vaccine developed an enhanced form of the disease, often suffering from high fever, bronchopneumonia, and wheezing. Dozens of children ended up being hospitalized and two eventually died. There still is no vaccine to prevent RSV infection, but scientists are working hard to develop one, according to the CDC.

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.

Harry Kazianis
Written By

Harry J. Kazianis (@Grecianformula) serves as a Senior Director at the Center for the National Interest in Washington, D.C., a Washington D.C.-based think tank founded by President Richard Nixon in 1994. Kazianis in the past served as Editor-In-Chief of the Diplomat and as a national security-focused fellow at CSIS, the Potomac Foundation, and the University of Nottingham (UK). His ideas have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, CNN, CNBC, and many other outlets across the political spectrum.

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