Comments: A Golden Dark Age of Vaccines

Just when I thought I could log out, I found this story on New Scientist:
Apparently the old Soviet polio vaccine was infected with the potentially cancer-causing virus SV40 up until the 80's, potentially affecting hundreds of million people.

Another reason to switch to DNA vaccines where there is no risk for this (unless of course the plasmids themselves turn out to be dangerous, but that seems unlikely). But in the short run this will likely just feed the anti-vaccine movement and demands for ever stricter (and more expensive/slow) controls of vaccine production.

Posted by Anders at July 8, 2004 03:30 AM

"Soviet scientists fuck up, give millions of people cancer. Film at 11."

Wow, now if that isn't the very definition of a "Dog Bites Man" story, I don't know what is.

Aaah, them wacky Soviets - trying to solve problems by putting guns to people's heads and invariably ending up with half-assed solutions that give millions of people cancer.

Oh, and don't forget Lysenkoism!

Posted by Korgmeister at July 8, 2004 04:14 PM

Yes, Soviet biology was a disaster. Lysenko was not alone in politicing soviet biology and ending scientific disagreements by sending opponents to gulags (see W.B. Gratzer's entertaining "The Undergrowth of Science"). Overall it shows just how important the free exchange of ideas and criticism is, and the danger of getting the government and (heaven forbid!) ideology involved.

But the Soviet vaccine mess is an unusually large mess - over a 100 million people may have been affected. Most likely the virus wasn't that dangerous and the benefits even of the tainted vaccine in terms of human life chances were immeasuably larger, but one shouldn't take chances.

And it brings up the question of how much quality control we want and need. On one hand the Soviet level is too low, it allows potentially risky things through. But the increasingly risk aversive regulators in the west are making medications and vaccines extremely expensive beyond their original cost. One approach would be to allow different levels of quality control, clearly labelled. That way one could find the right balance between cost and safety. But that works best when it is consumers rather than governments who selects the vaccines (or rather, the health consumers get their doctors to buy the right level). In centralized systems the trade-off will be between the government view of safety and cost, and that can diverge enormously from the citizens' views.

Posted by Anders at July 8, 2004 06:50 PM