In Victory Over Polio, Hope for the Battle Against COVID-19

Bill PetriUVA Health’s Bill Petri, MD, PhD, is developing a vaccine for COVID-19.

For much of the 20th century, summer was “polio season,” and people were accustomed to seeing swimming pools and movie theaters closed to stave off the latest epidemic. Shaking hands was off limits, and even touching money was perilous. The ever-present threat of death or permanent paralysis from polio was part of life, as were regular social-distancing efforts to limit the terrible disease’s spread.

For many younger people in America, the idea of living under threat from a serious infectious disease has been hard to imagine, at least until COVID-19. But now the story of the victory over polio is even more resonant. In a new editorial in the journal Science, UVA Health’s William A. Petri, MD, PhD, and graduate student Alexandra N. Donlan highlight medicine’s great triumph over polio, at least in the West, and hold out hope we can do the same for COVID-19.

“Nearly four decades ago the United States was faced with a similar challenge, the race to develop a vaccine against an infectious disease,” said Petri, an infectious disease expert who is developing a COVID vaccine. “Jonas Salk’s demonstration of the ability of vaccination to prevent paralysis due to polio in 1955 led to a nationwide celebration and Salk’s invitation to the White House.”

Preventing Polio

The editorial authors call the prevention of polio epidemics a “signature success of science in the 20th century.” But it was no easy task, they note, and the worldwide eradication of polio remains elusive.

Salk first developed an injectable vaccine in the mid-1950s. It was then tested in 2 million children in what Petri and Donlan call a “herculean” effort. “Today,” they write, “the faith in, and support of, scientific research by the American public is, arguably, founded on the polio vaccine.”

Read the full article in UVA Newsroom, 5/13/20.