The First Polio Rollout Was a Disaster
It is widely believed that vaccines have been a great success to medicine and modern science and some even praise vaccination as “the greatest scientific discovery.” Such claims ignore or whitewash vaccine history. In earlier parts of this series, I demonstrated how the smallpox vaccines did not eradicate smallpox. In fact, it multiplied in the face of vaccination. The vaccination rollout against polio (in the following century) was also a disaster. I am referring to the well known Cutter incident where members of the public were injected with a live virus. This caused injury, illness and paralysis among thousands of children. It was a man-made polio epidemic simply because humans had infected people with the very disease they are trying to prevent. The big question is this: If a vaccine is supposed to contain a dead, harmless or attenuated virus then what steps have been taken to ensure that the it actually is dead, harmless or attenuated? Such a procedure involves risk and it is conducted by fallible human beings who will make mistakes. Given this medical disaster, blind trust in the medical establishment and government regulations is not advisable.
The vaccine at the centre of incident was the polio vaccine created by Jonas Salk (1914-1995), an American physician and medical researcher. Salk received an M.D. from New York College of Medicine and student of immunology. The theory behind the Salk vaccine was that a patient would be injected with a dead polio virus to trigger an immune response. In the Cutter incident, sadly, the viruses were found to be very much alive after a mass rollout. The official explanation blames Cutter Laboratories, a family owned firm in California, who were licenced to manufacture and distributed Salk’s vaccine. The CDC comments:
In 1955, some batches of polio vaccine given to the public contained live polio virus, even though they had passed required safety testing. Over 250 cases of polio were attributed to vaccines produced by one company: Cutter Laboratories. This case, which came to be known as the Cutter Incident, resulted in many cases of paralysis. The vaccine was recalled as soon as cases of polio were detected.1
This explanation raises some questions. If Cutter Laboratories had passed the required safety testing then how did this happen? What are the chances other distributors could also be implicated? Why were the requirements so minimal when public health was at stake? How can they blame the Cutter firm when they had complied with the minimum requirements? Let’s break these questions down.
What were the chances that other distributors could also be implicated? According to the History Channel, six firms were chosen by Salk to distribute his vaccine.2 However it does not provide specific details on this. Professor of Medicine Siang Yong Tan states:
Shortly after mass polio vaccination began in the US, some subjects developed paralysis in the limb where the vaccine had been administered. Preparations from Cutter Laboratories and, to a lesser extent, Wyeth Laboratories were implicated and the vaccine was recalled after 250 cases of paralytic illness had occurred. There were also reports of paralysis and death in several children. Investigations showed that improperly inactivated vaccine had released live virus into more than 100,000 doses of the vaccine.3
If we have more than 100,000 injections with the live virus then the 250 cases reported were only a fraction. According to Paul Offit, roughly 40,000 got “abortive” polio, with fever, sore throat, headache, vomiting and muscle pain. Fifty-one were paralyzed, and five died.4 A reviewer of Offit’s book informs us:
Thirteen days after the first doses were administered, there were reports of cases of polio in immunised children. All of these initial cases had received vaccine manufactured by one company—Cutter Laboratories (although vaccine made by Wyeth also caused some cases of polio). In the end, at least 220 000 people were infected with live polio virus in Cutter’s vaccine (including 100 000 contacts of immunised children), 70 000 developed muscle weakness, 164 were severely paralysed, and 10 died.5
So now we find that Wyeth (whose pharmaceutical assets have now been incorporated into Pfizer) have also been implicated. Did Offit verify that the 220,000 cases were all from Cutter’s vaccine or was that assumed on the basis of the initial cases? Doctors Juskewitch, Tapia, Windebank state:
It was soon discovered that some lots of Cutter and Wyeth polio vaccine were insufficiently inactivated with formalin leading to live polio virus in more than 100,000 doses. In fact, 16 lots of Cutter polio vaccine were retested and the first six lots produced were positive for live polio virus. These incidents demonstrated the lack of oversight and safeguards put into place before the vaccine was made so widely available.
In response, the National Institutes of Health and Public Health Services developed minimal safety and potency standards for all polio vaccine in the United States and a Technical Committee on Poliomyelitis Vaccine was established in May 1955.6
Again, both Wyeth and Cutter were implicated in a failure to kill the virus. Action should not have been done “in response” but “in advance”. The “lack of oversight and safeguards” should not have occurred in the first place. The Cutter firms appears to have taken the fall for this tragedy. The incident is named after the family name and it appears that only their vaccines were recalled and retested. Wyeth is mentioned incidentally but I have not seen any mention of their vaccines being recalled. I do not know who the other manufacturers were.
Why were the requirements so minimal when public health was at stake? Like the Covid vaccine today, the polio vaccine was rushed into production. The History Channel informs us:
In the haste to rush the vaccine to the public, the federal government had not provided proper supervision of the major drug companies contracted by the March of Dimes to produce 9 million doses of vaccine for 1955.7
Mistakes are inevitable when there is a rush but when public health is concerned, this is no excuse. The Los Angeles Times also tries to limit the blame to the Cutter firm:
The so-called Cutter incident was “one of the worst biological disasters in American history, exploded the myth of the invulnerability of science and destroyed faith in the vaccine enterprise,” observed Paul Offit, a vaccine expert at the University of Pennsylvania whose 2005 book is the definitive account of the episode…
Cutter also subjected its vaccine lots to the bare minimum of testing required by the government, much less than the bigger companies, and didn’t monitor its own manufacturing standards to ensure that its vaccines were free of live viruses.8
Such an important roll-out should not have been left to individual manufacturing standards. The minimum requirements should have been set much higher. Fitzpatrick M commented on Cutter’s liability:
The court ruling that Cutter was liable to pay compensation to those damaged by its polio vaccine—even though it was not found to be negligent in its production—opened the floodgates to a wave of litigation. As a result, `vaccines were among the first medical products almost eliminated by lawsuits’. Indeed, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program was introduced in 1986 to protect vaccine manufacturers from litigation on a scale that threatened the continuing production of vaccines.9
This is quite revealing. Cutter was not found to be negligent in it’s production! Yet the court ruled that Cutter was liable to pay compensation to the victims. If the fault really was just down to that small family firm then why would the authorities not be able to settle it with just this one firm? Why did every manufacturer (and the entire industry) need to protected with a “National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program” – and that after 30 years? If a restaurant is found guilty for breaking food safety standards then action will be taken against that restaurant. Other restaurant owners (who are complying with the standards) would have nothing to worry about. Would it not be suspicious if every restaurant owner in the town suddenly wanted protection from liability in order to continue trading? If vaccine injury reports were still being received over a thirty year period then this shows a much wider problem.
The Cutter Incident was not the only occasion that Wyeth’s vaccine safety has been called into question. They were implicated in other lawsuits with the Sabin polio vaccine (which is different Salk’s in that it uses an attenuated live virus). The US National Research Council refer to the Davis vs Wyeth case:
Sabin polio vaccine had been administered to the plaintiff, a 39-year-old male, in a mass immunization campaign conducted with the assistance of a sales representative of the defendant. The plaintiff had developed polio. The Surgeon General had recommended that mass programs using Sabin Type III be limited to children because of the risk of transmission of the disease to adult recipients. The mass immunization campaign involved in the case, however, included adults. The defendant’s promotional materials failed to warn of the risk to adults, although the package insert did. The pharmacist who dispensed the oral vaccine did not read the package insert and did not warn the plaintiff of the risk. 10
Again, someone got polio from a vaccine is supposed to prevent it! The Sabin polio vaccine, in contrast to the Salk version, developed an attenuated live virus vaccine to prevent polio. The case referenced centred on the liability of the manufacturer and distributor for not warning the victim of the risks. The risk was that he, as an adult, could actually get polio as the vaccine was intended for children. Wyeth were implicated in a similar case in 1974:
In the legal case, Reyes v. Wyeth Laboratories, parents of a child who developed vaccine-associated paralytic polio after receiving oral polio vaccine administered by a nurse, sued the vaccine’s manufacturer and won. The court ruled that in the absence of a “learned intermediary” (i.e., a physician) the manufacturer is responsible for warning patients about a vaccine’s potential risks. Predictably, this caused consternation among manufacturers, as well as increases in vaccine prices to cover the cost of litigation.11
Yet another case where a polio vaccine has caused polio. Whilst the Cutter incident implicated the Salk vaccine, these lawsuits involved the Sabin vaccine. These were different types of vaccine and to put it in context, they are as different as the Pfizer is from Astrozenica on Covid injections. The above quote implies that it is actually a potential risk of the vaccine. This all comes back to my basic question: how can these experts guarantee that they are injecting people with a dead, harmless, inactive or attenuated virus?
Why were the government requirements so minimal in the first place? This is, sadly, nothing new. About 100 years prior to the Cutter incident, governments had mandated smallpox vaccines which caused a lot of injury. They even continued the threats of fines and imprisonment against parents who had one injured child and refused to vaccinate the others. Ten years after the Cutter incidents, people were injured by a drug called Thalidomide which was approved by the authorities. The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program was designed not to protect the consumer but to protect the manufacturers and the industry.
The incident does beg some questions about both the Cutter firm and Salk. Cutter complied with the legal requirements and, as a small business, it was in their interests to ensure that they had acted upon all the information they had received. To do otherwise would have been financial suicide. Salk, on the other side, would have vested interests in protecting his vaccine from reputational damage. One would expect him to put clauses into the contract to this effect and also provide meticulous, foolproof instructions to prevent such a situation. I find it more than likely that Cutter did exactly as requested and advised by Salk. However this is only my speculation and not a fact I can state with one hundred percent certainty.
Forbes commented on the fear and panic among the public:
“There was great pressure because the polio season was at hand,” Salk’s son, Peter Salk, M.D., president of the Jonas Salk Legacy Foundation, told me. Polio season generally started in May and ran through the summer. “People were terrified. This disease struck without warning, and there was no way of predicting who was going to get it and who wasn’t. The predominant effect of this announcement was a lifting of fear. It was seen as an absolute miracle and blessing”12
This situation is very familiar. In 2020 the public was terrified of Covid 19 and they rushed to embrace a vaccine. People lose sense and reason in such panics. The rush to embrace a vaccine without checking what the consequences will be was senseless. Steven Halbrook of the Vaccines and Christianity website has a useful analogy: Taking a vaccine for a disease you might not get is like jumping out of a high storey window just in case the building might get on fire. In taking such a jump you don’t consider the fatal consequences of your actions. Ironically, you also end up in the very state that you actually tried to prevent – dead!
How to Pro-Vaxxers View the Cutter Incident?
It is impossible to deny the reputational damage caused by the Cutter incident. For this reason, many pro-vaxxers attempt a damage limitation exercise. If a small family firm takes the blame then they can quietly dissolve while the polio vaccine narrative recovers and marches on. They will say “yes we made a mistake and we dealt with it. We learned from it and it’s not happened since.” Such a position is completely false as evidenced by the facts I present in this article.
One die-hard pro-vaxxers spins the Cutter incident in the most insensitive and careless manner:
Anti-vaxxers sometimes cite the “Cutter incident” as proof that vaccines aren’t safe, particularly for children. But despite its prevalence as an anti-immunization talking point, that 1955 episode is proof of the exact opposite: that broken systems do get fixed and science can be trusted.13
Tell that to the thousands of injured children!!! This shows that die hard pro-vaxxers view human beings as guinea pigs for “science” and they have no compassion for the victims. They don’t care if you get injured or bereaved after getting vaccine! According to them, your injury or loss is for a greater good and helps “science” to progress. In contrast, God holds a high premium on human life and he made laws against death and injury in the Bible. He also made regulations on sanitation which would have prevented the need for vaccines in the first place.
Although I the Cutter incident occurred decades before I was born, the historical knowledge of it gives me zero confidence in vaccination. The smallpox vaccinations in the previous century were completely powerless to prevent smallpox and the first polio rollout turned into a disaster. When you consent to vaccination, you are accepting a risk of injecting a virus into your body (or accepting it orally in the case of the later polio vaccine developed by Sabin). You are trusting that the government have set a very high safety regulations, you are trusting that the manufacturers have done sufficient safety tests and you are trusting that the tests show infallible results. You are also trusting that the injected virus actually is harmless, attenuated or dead. Such trust is, in my view, naive and misplaced.
1 Historical Vaccine Safety Concerns https://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/concerns-history.html
2 How a New Polio Vaccine Faced Shortages and Setbacks https://www.history.com/news/salk-polio-vaccine-shortages-problems
3 Tan SY, Ponstein N. Jonas Salk (1914-1995): A vaccine against polio. Singapore Med J. 2019 Jan;60(1):9-10. doi: 10.11622/smedj.2019002. PMID: 30840995; PMCID: PMC6351694. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6351694/
4 Paul Offit, The Cutter Incident. Cited by The Washington Post April 14th 2020 https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2020/04/14/cutter-polio-vaccine-paralyzed-children-coronavirus/
5 Carapetis JR. The Cutter Incident: How America’s First Polio Vaccine Led to the Growing Vaccine Crisis. BMJ. 2006 Mar 25;332(7543):733. PMCID: PMC1410842.
6 Juskewitch JE, Tapia CJ, Windebank AJ. Lessons from the Salk polio vaccine: methods for and risks of rapid translation. Clin Transl Sci. 2010 Aug;3(4):182-5. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-8062.2010.00205.x. PMID: 20718820; PMCID: PMC2928990. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2928990/#b12
7 8 Things You May Not Know About Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine. https://www.history.com/news/8-things-you-may-not-know-about-jonas-salk-and-the-polio-vaccine
8 LA Times, May 28th 2020. Column: Developing a coronavirus vaccine should not be rushed. Here’s why https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2020-05-28/coronavirus-vaccine-development-timeline
9 Fitzpatrick M. The Cutter Incident: How America’s First Polio Vaccine Led to a Growing Vaccine Crisis. J R Soc Med. 2006 Mar;99(3):156. PMCID: PMC1383764. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1383764/
10 National Research Council (US) Division of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. Vaccine Supply and Innovation. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1985. 6, Liability for the Production and Sale of Vaccines. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK216813/
11 CDC, History of Vaccine Statements: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/downloads/vis-history.pdf
12 April 13th 2015 Polio Vaccine Found “Safe And Effective” 60 Years Ago: What Would Salk Think Today? https://www.forbes.com/sites/tarahaelle/2015/04/13/polio-vaccine-found-safe-and-effective-60-years-ago-what-would-salk-think-today/
13 Katie Dowd, SFGate, February 22nd 2020. https://www.sfgate.com/sfhistory/article/polio-vaccine-cutter-laboratories-berkeley-15961438.php