Last summer we heard the prediction that by the end of 2020, we would have a safe, effective vaccine to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which had only been discovered, of course, in December 2019, before causing countless deaths and mayhem in the world as we knew it. I must admit, I was skeptical.
Early in the pandemic, I learned that the fastest a vaccine had ever been developed was for the mumps virus, an effort which took four years. Even with all possible resources devoted to a COVID-19 vaccine, how could we ever do this in one year? Before I could even ponder this, however, my curiosity took me down the rabbit hole of the mumps vaccine.
Maurice Hilleman, to whom the mumps vaccine is credited, is something of a superhero in the world of virology and vaccine development. Over the course of his career, he was involved in the development of 40 vaccines, including an influenza vaccine in 1957 estimated to have prevented hundreds of thousands of deaths.
One night in 1963, Hilleman’s young daughter Jeryl Lynn awoke him from sleep. She was feeling sick. Hilleman saw the telltale swelling of her salivary glands and knew she had the mumps. Mumps was a common childhood ailment, and while most children got mild illness including the classic swollen cheeks, it also caused aseptic meningitis, deafness, and infertility in males. Hilleman put Jeryl Lynn back to bed, then drove to his lab to retrieve a swab and culture media. He returned and awoke young Jeryl from her slumber to swab her mouth.
Over the next four years Hilleman cultured and tested the Jeryl Lynn strain of the mumps virus until it was safe enough to administer without the risk of illness but still effective in generating an immune response against a normal mumps virus. Jeryl Lynn was present when her younger sister Kirsten was publicly immunized with the new mumps vaccine as a small child. As a result of Hilleman’s vaccine, the United States now has only about 200 cases of mumps per year, compared to 200,000 per year before the vaccine.
Back to that COVID-19 vaccine. Well, my timeline skepticism was unwarranted. In December 2020, data published on two separate vaccines using mRNA technology showed without ambiguity that we did have safe, effective vaccines just one year from the start of this pandemic. How so quickly? We can give credit to a modern technology being ready for this problem and the intellectual weight of thousands of scientists around the world. I think even Maurice Hilleman, the father of modern vaccines himself, would be impressed.
Richard P. Holm, MD passed away in March 2020 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He is founder of The Prairie Doc®. For free and easy access to the entire Prairie Doc® ® library, visit www.prairiedoc.org and follow Prairie Doc® on Facebook. Kelly Evans-Hullinger, M.D. is part of The Prairie Doc® team of physicians and currently practices internal medicine in Brookings, South Dakota.