Vaccine Diplomacy

COVID-19 has clearly become a world-wide challenge. To vanquish it will require a long-term commitment to a coordinated international effort. But so far, it seems many countries are prioritizing protecting their own populations before sharing vaccine doses and resources. This does not bode well for hundreds of millions of people living in the Third World.

Fortunately, there are some surprising historic precedents for international cooperation. Here are two very important examples —

Smallpox — In 1798, British physician Edward Jenner discovered that cowpox given as an inoculum could prevent smallpox, the most feared disease of that time. After vaccination had been accepted as an effective preventative, word quickly spread around the world. Putting public health before politics, Jenner corresponded widely to advise countries as diverse as Russia, Spain, and Turkey, as well as Native American tribes and nations in the U.S., Canada and Mexico on how to administer the smallpox vaccine. He specifically used his knowledge to repair relations with France,  as the start of the 19th century was a period of constant war between the two nations. By the way, the term vaccine comes from vacca, the Latin word for “cow”.

Polio — Not only are the 1950s remembered as a time of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, this was also the era of the polio epidemic. But behind the scenes, the two nations decided to coordinate on developing a polio vaccine. American Jonas Salk had developed a vaccine, but an accidentally distributed batch that carried the active virus led to 260 polio cases. When Albert Sabin’s more sophisticated version was ready in the mid-1950s, there was no longer any enthusiasm for large-scale clinical trials in this country. Fortunately, a team of Russian scientists met Sabin, and they agreed allow the trials in the Soviet Union. The vaccine was proven safe and effective after 10 million Russian children had been inoculated, and it was then adopted back in the U.S.

Hopefully, these lessons on international cooperation will be remembered during this current pandemic.

Taken from “‘Vaccine Diplomacy: Historical Perspectives and Future Directions” by Peter J. Hotez (, and the OZY “Daily Dose” of January 13, 2021 (

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