Pittsburgh vaccine heroes then and now

On April 12, 1955, church bells rang, factory whistles blew, and children were let out of school as newspapers around the world declared “Victory over polio.” That day, the new polio vaccine developed by University of Pittsburgh virologist Dr. Jonas Salk was declared “safe and effective,” promising a victory over the most feared disease of its time. Salk would soon become one of the most celebrated heroes of the 20th century.

That evening, famed journalist Edward R. Murrow asked young Salk who owned the patent for the new vaccine. “Well, the people, I would say,” the scientist responded. “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

For the past year, hopes and dreams of millions of people around the world have turned to scientists who have been working around the clock to develop vaccines against the novel coronavirus. This year, as the Salk polio vaccine celebrates its 66th anniversary, COVID-19 vaccines are being administered to millions of people worldwide, bringing hope for an end to this devastating pandemic.

But unlike more than half a century ago, there is no singular hero to thank. Health care workers and research scientists who have joined forces to develop and administer life-saving vaccines have generally remained anonymous.

For the last eight months, I have had the privilege as a filmmaker of going inside Pitt’s Center for Vaccine Research and getting to know its director, molecular virologist and vaccine designer Paul Duprex, and his team, and documenting what has been going on in their lab as they and scientists around the world have worked together to unlock the secrets of the coronavirus.

I first met Mr. Duprex when we were both featured on CBS’ “Sunday Morning” in May 2020 for a segment called “How The Fight Against Polio Was Won.” Rita Braver drew parallels between Mr. Duprex’s work and that of Salk, using clips from the movie about the development of the polio vaccine, “A Shot To Save the World.” When Mr. Duprex and I spoke over Zoom, he drew a colorful diagram explaining the differences between 65 years ago, when Salk and his rival Dr. Albert Sabin used two approaches to making a vaccine, and now. Thanks to new technologies and understanding of genetics, he explained, we are living in a vaccine renaissance with multiple approaches to vaccines including mRNA, DNA, protein, and vector-platform vaccines, to name a few.

Mr. Duprex also pointed out that while these scientific platforms could greatly accelerate the development of vaccine candidates, the actual process of making and testing vaccines -- from finding the right animal models to the double-blind testing -- were remarkably similar to the processes Salk and Sabin went through.

Perhaps it is his Irish accent, but Mr. Duprex has a gift for explaining science in a way that is accessible. Realizing the need for quality information about vaccines, especially for educators trying to reach students remotely, I asked him if we could, using socially distance protocols, film him and his colleagues at work in the lab.

That resulting film, “Chasing COVID” will have its virtual world premiere on April 12 and then be given away free to educators and community groups across the country in the hope that through better understanding of science will come trust.

Audiences who watch the film will be struck by the way Mr. Duprex links science and creativity, noting that SARS-CoV-2 was a novel virus which no one had ever seen prior to December 2019 and required labs around the world to work collaboratively to learn about this new pathogen. He noted that it was scientists in China who immediately shared the genetic sequence they had found for COVID-19. It was this collective effort that allowed the scientific community to develop these vaccines in record time.

The April 12 screening will be followed by a conversation with Mr. Duprex and his colleague, Dr. Anita McElroy, who is working on developing a COVID-19 measles vector vaccine candidate; Dr. Sylvia Owusu-Ansah, who has played a leading role in outreach to the Pittsburgh community; and Dr. Peter Salk, the president of the Jonas Salk Legacy Foundation, who was one of the first to receive his father’s’ vaccine.

I first met Peter Salk during the 50th anniversary of the Salk vaccine celebration, and he was adamant in emphasizing that while his father did receive a large share of the limelight, there were many streams that fed into the victory over polio. He read a list of the scores of individuals who worked in Pitt’s virus laboratory, called out Dr. Jesse Wright, who led the D.T. Watson Home for Crippled children where the Salk vaccine was first tested, and gave thanks to the millions of Americans who raised money for the March of Dimes that supported the research.

One hopes that as we continue to work our way through this pandemic, the belief in science and collective effort which was so prominent after the victory over polio will become infectious again in this country and the world.

Following the release of “Chasing COVID,” middle school and high school students will be asked to participate in a viral video contest — Taking a Shot At Changing The World — to make their own short videos with the hope that they will contribute to making good information about vaccines “go viral” and inspire a new generation to realize the creativity involved in scientific research.

Perhaps it is good that today we don’t have one single hero being credited for this victory, as appropriate for our age, the heroes are many.

Carl Kurlander in a senior lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh and the founding producer at Pitt’s Center for Creativity. He resides in Squirrel Hill.