The Salk Mythology

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  • 10/28/2014
A Google doodle marks the 100th birthday of Jonas Salk, who as everyone knows, discovered the vaccine that cure polio without regard to making money.

That's a nice narrative but it is history rewritten by those who want to claim that every company in the drug or vaccine business should cut their prices or give away their products.   

It is true that when Edward R. Murrow asked Jonas Salk who owned the patent to the polio vaccine Salk said:  “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?"

Since then, Salk's statement has been use as trump card by individuals who claim that protecting the intellectual property of medicines is immoral or greedy. As an article in Slate notes:  One critic of the big pharma called Salk “the foster parent of children around the world with no thought of the money he could make by withholding the vaccine from the children of the poor.”

Let's set aside the fact that solar energy companies have, in effect, patented the sun.   There was a reason the Salk and the Sabin vaccines (more on that later) were not patented.   The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was the beneficiary of a massive campaign to eradicate polio that makes the ALS Foundation Ice Bucket Challenge and Standup2Cancer efforts seem anemic (which they are NOT.)   

"In the single year that the polio vaccine was unveiled, 80 million people donated money to the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which spearheaded the vaccine effort.... Schools, communities, and companies joined in a remarkable display of unity against the disease. Even Walt Disney’s cartoon characters contributed their talents, appearing in a film that adapted the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ song “Heigh Ho” to an anti-polio ditty. In the 13 years leading up to the vaccine’s roll out, the budget of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis swelled from $3 million to $50 million.  

In today's dollars that's about $500 million.  The need for IP was removed because the passion capital had already been raised. 

Further, it is true that a vaccine (an inactivated virus) does occur in nature as does the sun.  But we patent both.  How  many solar energy companies have repurposed the sun's power with patented technology.  A lot.  And a lot more than vaccine companies have.  

Then there is the myth that the Salk vaccine eliminated polio.  In fact as Angela Matysiak noted in a review of a Salk biography:

"In 1959, epidemiologists reported findings on the pattern of the disease. These suggested a shift in incidence according to age, geography, and race. By 1960, less than one-third of the population under 40 years of age had received the full course of three doses of the Salk vaccine plus a booster. Most of those who had were white and from the middle and upper economic classes. The disease raged on in urban areas among African Americans and Puerto Ricans and in certain rural locales among Native Americans and members of isolated religious groups."

There were several reasons for the lag.  Most important was the limited effectiveness of the Salk vaccine which was killed version of the polio virus required several shots.  Matysiak oberves that Sabin put the point most succinctly: “The need for inoculating large amounts and the need for repetition are bad.” In contrast, an oral vaccine with a small dose of the attenuated versions of each of the three strains, administered once, would give lifelong immunity.

The Sabin vaccine was cheaper and easier to administer.  But it became clear that both vaccines were needed because each protected certain subgroups that the other could not protect.   The Salk vaccine could be used in people with compromised immune systems while the Sabin vaccine could not.

Both were required to eradicate polio.   Ironically, the Sabin vaccine could be considered a me-too vaccine by the same ilk who claim patents don't matter.  

And the same anti-patent crowd ignore another inconvenient truth:  That Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, regretted that he had not secure a patent because the lack of funding and private investment postponed it's development and commercialization by a decade and cost the lives of millions around the world. 


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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