‘The Vaccine Race: How Scientists Used Human Cells to Combat Killer Diseases’ by Meredith Wadman is an account of the history, science and ethics of vaccine development in the United States. It primarily concerns the career of American anatomy professor Leonard Hayflick and his quest to find and mass produce the safest human cells for use in vaccines at a time when viruses such as polio and rubella were far more prevalent than they are today.
I reviewed three popular science books on similar topics earlier this year, namely cells and ethics (‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot) the provision of vaccines in developing countries (‘The Health of Nations’ by Karen Bartlett) and the history of the 1918 Spanish flu (‘Pale Rider’ by Laura Spinney). As my reading tastes are broad, it’s fair to say that I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read another book on the same topic so soon had ‘The Vaccine Race’ not been shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize which I am shadowing this year. Inevitably, some elements covered in the previous books I have read are also featured in Wadman’s account, notably the Sabin and Salk polio vaccines and HeLa Cells. However, the subject area is so vast that there is also plenty here that was new to me too.
The ethical issues raised by the development of vaccines are numerous and complex. In the mid-20th century, vaccines were often tested on people with learning disabilities, orphans and prisoners, sometimes with devastating consequences when experiments went wrong. The WI-38 cells at the centre of Hayflick’s career and the discovery of the rubella vaccine were taken from the aborted foetus of a Swedish woman known only as Mrs X but he did not seek her permission to do this. Furthermore, a long-running dispute over the ownership of the cells when Hayflick took up a professorship at Stanford University almost ended his career. Wadman’s view of Hayflick and his work is generally favourable – his work led to some of the most important medical discoveries of the century, protecting billions of people and saving countless lives – but it’s also clear that his methods have generated a fair amount of controversy along the way.
‘The Vaccine Race’ is a very dense read and some of the lengthier descriptions of things like the finer points of the biotechnology industry went a bit over my head in places. Overall, the book is probably a little longer than necessary for a layperson and the general trajectory of where the book is going is quite vague and frequently goes off on tangents. However, the ethical debates are fascinating and clearly presented.
Look out for reviews of ‘The Vaccine Race’ and the other Wellcome Book Prize shortlisted books by the other shadow panel members Rebecca, Laura, Annabel and Paul.