“There is no Cold War”: global networks in polio vaccine research

Dora Vargha
University of Exeter

When not portrayed as a heroic struggle for the betterment of mankind, polio vaccine development has mostly been told as a story of bitter rivalry between Salk and Sabin. It has also been recounted as a particular “American Story”, with the March of Dimes, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis with the occasional mention of the Sabin trials in the Soviet Union. Historical narratives of polio have rarely crossed national borders, even though polio is undisputedly seen as a global health issue today.

But if we step outside of the national boundaries and shift our perspective from an American view, another story of polio unfolds. It reveals that polio as a global health issue is not a recent phenomenon, but one that reaches back to the late 1940s and early 1950s. It sheds light on a global network of scientists and public health officials, who set in motion global vaccine trials in the 1950s and 60s. Against a backdrop of Cold War tensions and the remnants of the colonial world, the personal networks of researchers intertwined with the emergence of the World Health Organization (WHO) in the development of live poliovirus vaccines. The international agency capitalized on the network of scientists to become a coordinating, validating and standardizing entity, while researchers used the WHO to establish further ties, get access to cutting-edge technology, or to free vaccines in public health emergencies. Continue reading ““There is no Cold War”: global networks in polio vaccine research”