MOSCOW — To the boys, it was only a sugary deal with. To their dad and mom, outstanding medical researchers, what occurred of their Moscow residence that day in 1959 was a significant experiment with numerous lives at stake — and their very own kids as guinea pigs.
“We shaped a type of line,” Dr. Peter Chumakov, who was 7 on the time, recalled in an interview. Into every ready mouth, a mum or dad popped a sugar dice laced with weakened poliovirus — an early vaccine in opposition to a dreaded illness. “I used to be consuming it from the fingers of my mom.”
At this time, that very same vaccine is gaining renewed consideration from researchers — together with these brothers, who all grew as much as be virologists — as a potential weapon in opposition to the brand new coronavirus, primarily based partially on analysis achieved by their mom, Dr. Marina Voroshilova.
Dr. Voroshilova established that the stay polio vaccine had an surprising profit that, it seems, could possibly be related to the present pandemic: Individuals who obtained the vaccine didn’t turn into sick with different viral diseases for a month or so afterward. She took to giving the boys polio vaccine every fall, as safety in opposition to flu.
Now, some scientists in a number of nations are taking a eager curiosity within the concept of repurposing current vaccines, just like the one with stay poliovirus and another for tuberculosis, to see if they can provide at least temporary resistance to the coronavirus. Russians are among them, drawing on a long history of vaccine research — and of researchers, unconcerned about being scoffed at as mad scientists, experimenting on themselves.
Experts advise that the idea — like many other proposed ways of attacking the pandemic — must be approached with great caution.
“We are much better off with a vaccine that induces specific immunity,” Dr. Paul A. Offit, a co-inventor of a vaccine against the rotavirus and professor at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a telephone interview. Any benefits from a repurposed vaccine, he said, are “much shorter lived and incomplete,” compared with a tailored vaccine.
Still, Dr. Robert Gallo, a leading advocate of testing the polio vaccine against coronavirus, said that repurposing vaccines is “one of the hottest areas of immunology.” Dr. Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said that even if the weakened poliovirus confers immunity for only a month or so, “it gets you over the hump, and it would save a lot of lives.”
But there are risks.
Billions of people have taken live poliovirus vaccine, nearly eradicating the disease. However, in extremely rare cases, the weakened virus used in the vaccine can mutate into a more dangerous form, cause polio and infect other people. The risk of paralysis is estimated at one in 2.7 million vaccinations.
For those reasons, public health organizations say that once a region eliminates naturally occurring polio, it must stop routine use of oral vaccine, as the US did 20 years in the past.
And this month, the Nationwide Institute of Allergy and Infectious Ailments delayed a examine designed by Dr. Gallo’s institute, the Cleveland Clinic, the College of Buffalo and Roswell Park Complete Most cancers Heart to check the effectiveness of stay polio vaccine in opposition to coronavirus, utilizing well being care staff as topics. The company raised security issues, together with the possibility of stay poliovirus making its means into water provides and infecting others, in line with researchers accustomed to the examine software. The press workplace of the N.I.A.I.D. declined to remark.
However different nations are shifting forward. Trials with the polio vaccine have begun in Russia, and are deliberate in Iran and Guinea-Bissau.
A particular vaccine for the coronavirus could be one which trains the immune system to focus on that virus particularly, and greater than 125 vaccine candidates are under development around the world.
Repurposed vaccines, in contrast, use live but weakened viruses or bacteria to stimulate the innate immune system more broadly to fight pathogens, at least temporarily.
The first polio vaccine, developed by Dr. Jonas Salk, an American, used “inactivated” virus — particles of killed virus. It had to be injected, an obstacle to immunization campaigns in poorer countries.
When that vaccine was widely introduced in 1955, Dr. Albert Sabin was testing a vaccine using live but attenuated poliovirus, which could be taken orally. But in the United States, with the Salk vaccine already in use, the authorities were reluctant to take the perceived risk of conducting live-virus trials.
Dr. Sabin gave his three strains of attenuated virus to a married pair of virologists in the Soviet Union, Dr. Mikhail Chumakov, the founder of a polio research institute that now bears his name, and Dr. Voroshilova.
Dr. Chumakov vaccinated himself, but a medicine intended primarily for children needed child test subjects, so he and Dr. Voroshilova gave it to their three sons and several nieces and nephews.
Their experiment enabled Dr. Chumakov to persuade a senior Soviet official, Anastas Mikoyan, to proceed with wider trials, eventually leading to the mass production of an oral polio vaccine used around the world. The United States began oral polio vaccinations in 1961 after it was proved safe in the Soviet Union.
“Somebody has to be the first,” Dr. Peter Chumakov said in an interview. “I was never angry. I think it was very good to have such a father, who is confident enough that what he is doing is right and is sure he will not harm his children.”
His mother was, if anything, even more enthusiastic about running the tests on the boys, he said.
“She was absolutely sure there was nothing to be scared of,” he said.
Something Dr. Voroshilova noticed decades ago has renewed interest in the oral vaccine.
A typical healthy child is host to a dozen or so respiratory viruses that cause little or no illness. But Dr. Voroshilova could not find any of them in children soon after they were immunized against polio.
An enormous examine within the Soviet Union of 320,000 folks, from 1968 to 1975, overseen by Dr. Voroshilova, discovered diminished mortality from flu in folks immunized with different vaccines, together with the oral polio vaccine.
She received recognition within the Soviet Union for demonstrating a hyperlink between vaccinations and broad safety in opposition to viral illnesses, seemingly by stimulating the immune system.
Dr. Voroshilova’s and Dr. Chumakov’s work clearly influenced their sons’ minds in addition to their well being — not solely did all of them turn into virologists, they embraced self-testing as nicely.
Dr. Peter Chumakov as we speak is the chief scientist on the Engelhardt Institute of Molecular Biology on the Russian Academy of Sciences and co-founder of an organization in Cleveland that treats most cancers with viruses. He has developed about 25 viruses to be used in opposition to tumors — all of which, he mentioned, he has examined on himself.
He’s additionally now taking polio vaccine, which he grows in his personal laboratory, as potential safety in opposition to coronavirus.
Dr. Ilia Chumakov, a molecular biologist, helped sequence the human genome in France.
Dr. Alexei Chumakov, who was not but born when his dad and mom experimented on his brothers, labored as a most cancers researcher at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles for a lot of his profession. Whereas working in Moscow, he developed a vaccine in opposition to hepatitis E, which he examined first on himself.
“It’s an previous custom,” he mentioned. “The engineer ought to stand underneath the bridge when the primary heavy load goes over.”
Dr. Konstantin Chumakov is an affiliate director of the U.S. Meals and Drug Administration’s Workplace of Vaccine Analysis and Evaluate, which might be concerned in approving any coronavirus vaccines to be used in Individuals. He’s additionally a co-author, with Dr. Gallo and others, of a current article in the journal Science that promotes analysis into repurposing current vaccines.
In an interview, Dr. Konstantin Chumakov mentioned he can not keep in mind consuming the sugar dice again in 1959 — he was 5 years previous — however authorised of his dad and mom’ experiment as a step towards saving untold numbers of kids from paralysis.
“It was the appropriate factor to do,” he mentioned. “Now, there could be questions, like ‘Did you get permission from the ethics committee?’”
Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting from Moscow.