Public health experts are quick to note that the current vaccination effort differs significantly from previous attempts to inoculate large numbers of people. Never before has there been an attempt to produce and distribute a vaccine on such a wide scale in such a short amount of time.
Still, some of the problems with the vaccine’s distribution have clear historical precedent.
Perhaps the closest contemporary comparison to today’s effort is the administering of the polio vaccine in the 1950s and 1960s.
Much like COVID-19, the polio virus, which would infect 57,879 and kill 3,145 in 1952 alone, sent the country into a panic. Public spaces closed, and many people were afraid to leave their homes, as those who contracted the virus often ended up hospitalized or permanently paralyzed.
“People were afraid,” said Rahul Gupta, chief medical and health officer at the March of Dimes. “People were afraid to go out because of this disease.”
At the time, the March of Dimes, then known as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, led a massive fund-raising charge to combat the virus. Celebrities, including Elvis Presley, rallied support for the cause. In a show of unity rarely seen during the current pandemic, Americans jumped to support the effort. Within a few weeks’ time in 1938, some 2.68 million dimes had been sent to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had been stricken with polio, to fund research aimed at developing a vaccine.
The effort paid off. In 1954, the March of Dimes organized and funded one of the largest clinical trials in history, which included 1.8 million children. And when it was announced the following April that a vaccine from University of Pittsburgh scientist Jonas Salk was both safe and effective at protecting against the virus, Americans were understandably elated.
But the rollout of the vaccine soon proved challenging on a number of fronts. Americans who had expected a coordinated federal distribution effort were frustrated to learn that there wasn’t one. With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still in its infancy, the federal government turned to an array of pharmaceutical companies for help.
“What the government did was simply to hand the formula over to [six] companies, with virtually no oversight, and say, ‘Go produce it for everybody who wants it,’ ” said David Oshinsky, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Polio: An American Story.” “And it turned out to be a disaster.”