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Jonas Salk's polio vaccine developed 65 years ago

Vaccine development is much different now than in it was in 1955.

SAN DIEGO — A vaccination against polio developed by Jonas Salk was proven effective 65 years ago this week. Today, the race is on to develop a coronavirus vaccine.

Salk discovered the polio vaccination in 1955.  

It was produced from the polio virus itself. Salk used formaldehyde to kill the virus before it was injected into patients.

“Jonas' vaccine was a killed version of the virus. If you followed the protocol correctly, you would have a dead virus. There was never any chance of anybody being infected by the vaccine,” said Dr. Greg Lemke, a professor at Salk Institute in La Jolla. 

Lemke worked with Salk during the final decade of Salk’s life.

Early problems with Salk's polio vaccine came up when a California lab producing the vaccine failed to fully kill the virus.

Lemke said that is not an issue with modern vaccines because scientists do not inject the entire virus into patents. Instead, they will use proteins from the coronavirus virus to trigger an antibody response.

“There is not the kind of risk that you had back in the day when you were injecting killed or weakened versions of entire viruses,” said Lemke.

Because coronavirus is a new virus, Lemke said it's going to take time -- perhaps more than a year – to develop a vaccine.

“When you're testing a new vaccine you've got to inject it into people and you’ve got to wait. You’ve got to see whether they are responding. Eventually, you’ve got to do this to a large number of people so you know how the vaccine works,” Lemke said.

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Once a coronavirus vaccination is approved, scientists still don't know how long it will be effective. It will depend on how fast the virus mutates.

“Most times when things mutate – when an organism incurs mutations or when a virus mutates – mutation isn't something good. It's a mutation that makes the virus weaker,” said Lemke.

In the end, Lemke said, a vaccine will be the solution to knock down the worldwide pandemic, just like the Salk vaccination virtually eradicated polio.

If the coronavirus mutates over the coming years, it likely will get weaker and easier to fight as vaccines come into production.

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