The covid-19 pandemic has led us to wonder: how long does it take to create a vaccine?
There is no one right answer, but we know that the fastest-developing one yet was the work of a man you’ve probably never heard of, despite being an inspiration to today’s vaccine makers.
Dr. Maurice Hilleman created 40 animal and human vaccines, and of the 14 that are routinely administered to children, nine were created or developed by him.
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Hilleman was a tough and impulsive character, known for his brilliant mind, his loyalty to his team, and his vulgar language. His friend, Dr. Antony Fauci, described him as “an adorable grumpy”.
But he was also a loving father and it was his daughter Jeryl Lynn, who, when he was 5 years old, unintentionally helped him develop his mumps vaccine in record time.
“My father had a list of illnesses that he felt needed to be addressed,” he told the BBC.
With death near
He had been born in 1919 during the Spanish flu pandemic, in rural Montana, United States.
“He was the youngest of nine children. His mother and twin sister died at birth. He himself barely managed to survive that period of newborn childhood,” says his daughter.
“He was raised by his aunt and uncle who lived next door. The family was very poor. They had to deal with very difficult climates, periods of drought, floods, extreme cold. One of his brothers died of appendicitis.”
“Mortality was constantly around him, and I think that created part of the drive and the desire to be useful that he kept throughout his life. “
Hilleman’s first job was at the local department store. But his brothers persuaded him to apply to Montana State University. And after graduating in microbiology with the best grades of his year, he moved to Chicago to study for a doctorate.
“That was very rare at the time in his area. He was on scholarship but had no money. His diet consisted of a hot dog a day, “says Jeryl Lynn.
His doctoral thesis was innovative. In 1944, at just 25 years old, Hilleman showed that chlamydia was not a virus but a bacterium that it could be treated with antibiotics.
He turned down a career in academia to work for a pharmaceutical company and the US Army.
Developed a vaccine for Japanese encephalitis, a virus that causes brain damage. And it showed how flu viruses mutate every year, preventing a pandemic by updating a vaccine.
Instead of love, knowledge
By the time their daughter Jeryl Lynn was born, Hilleman had already helped save millions of lives.
“Growing up and really for most of his life, my father worked for Merck, the big pharmaceutical company, and I could count on him being home for dinner every night.
“We had nice conversations over dinner and then we washed the dishes and he went to his study; I went in and out of there all the time and he always stopped and took time for me, but he kept working!”
In 1963, when he was five years old, Jeryl Lynn woke up in the middle of the night because he was not feeling well.
She described what she was feeling and, to her surprise, Hilleman did not do what she expected.
“Instead of, I don’t know, giving me a glass of water and lovingly going back to bed, he pulled out the Merck Handbook, an excellent compendium on disease to look for the symptoms of disease.”
After putting her to bed, Hilleman took action.
“He ran to the laboratory in the middle of the night and returned home with a swab and a Petri dish.“.
Next step, he took a sample of the mucus in his throat.
The indicated mumps
I was sure Jeryl Lynn had mumps. What I didn’t know was which strain. Some forms of mumps are relatively harmless. Others infect the brain and spinal cord, causing meningitis and even hearing loss.
“It was fortunate or fortuitous that this man, probably the world’s greatest vaccine creator, had a daughter who was infected with a strain of mumps that was not particularly likely to infect the brain and spinal cord, so when he made the vaccine it ended up being remarkably safe, “Paul Offit is a professor of pediatrics and vaccinology at the University of Pennsylvania, told the BBC.
“I used to joke that it was proof of how good a daughter I was that even I managed to get sick the right way, because the virus had the properties they wanted. It grew on the Petri dish and met its specifications, “says Jeryl Lynn.
Because Hilleman worked in the industry, he had the resources to develop, test, and mass-produce the vaccine.
“He was passionately involved in the whole process. There is a lot of coordination to be able to deliver a vaccine to the doctors, and my father led the project through to the end.”
In a two by three
In the 1960s, clinical trials were smaller and faster, with less regulation. The virus was tested in 1966 and approved a year later. In other words, the process lasted 4 years.
They named the virus strain used in the vaccine as Jeryl Lynn and her little sister Kirsten was one of the first to be inoculated.
Hilleman combined his mumps vaccine with those he developed against measles and rubella to produce the MMR vaccine or MMR vaccine (also known as SPR and SRP), to immunize against these three diseases.
And while mumps is the most rapidly developed vaccine, it is just one of dozens produced by Hilleman.
“How did he do what he did? He was always right … it sounds so impossible, but the fact is that it is true,” exclaims Offit, who worked with him in the 1980s and 90s.
“He was never satisfied; when he made a vaccine, it was just one thing he could cross off his list.
“He said that when he built fences in Montana, they took a break in the afternoon – they all sat down and drank water. When they finished, they started again and continued doing it day after day.”
“He also conceived of his work with vaccines. His goal, although impossible, was to try to eliminate any infectious disease that could cause a child to suffer or be hospitalized or die“.
Working with him, says Offit, was hard.
“He had his way of doing things and that’s the way it had to be. He was very loyal to those who worked for him, but he expected them to work as hard as he did, which was practically impossible.
“I have never met anyone who was tan ready and also so rude. To the point that pharmacist Merck wanted to give him this sensitivity training course, but refused to say: ‘What is this? ¿One eparish school?‘”.
Dr. Offit hopes his old friend’s record as the fastest vaccine maker will soon be broken. He is part of a team working to develop a covid-19 vaccine.
“I wish I was alive today because if I were, I would point to a vaccine and say: ‘this is the way to go’ … and would be right, as usual“.
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