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Appreciating Dr. Maurice Hilleman: The Man Who Saved Millions Of Lives (With Vaccines)

As someone who regularly consumes superhero media of all kinds, I try to appreciate the real heroes in the real world who regularly save countless lives. Most carry themselves without superpowers, flashy costumes, or charisma on par with Robert Downy Jr. or Christopher Reeves. They just do the work that needs doing to help people who will never know their name.

A couple years ago, I made a tribute to Dr. Norman Borlaug, the famed agricultural scientist who helped usher in an agricultural revolution. This man, who most have never heard of, has saved millions of lives by helping the world produce more food, reduce famine, and combat world hunger. The amount of good this man has done for the world cannot be overstated.

In that same spirit, I’d like to highlight another individual who I doubt most people have heard of. He’s another doctor who, through his work, has helped save millions of lives, many of them children. It’s because of this man that millions of children born today don’t become ill with diseases that had ravaged humanity for generations.

That man is Dr. Maurice Hilleman. While his notoriety is not on the same level as Dr. Borlaug, I have a feeling his profile will rise considerably after the events of 2020. That’s because Dr. Hilleman currently holds the record for developing the most vaccines of any doctor in history.

In total, he helped develop more than 40.

Of those vaccines, 8 are still routinely recommended by doctors today. They combat terrible diseases like measles, mumps, Hepatitis, and chicken pox.

It’s a level of productivity that is unparalleled today. As a result of these vaccines, approximately 8 million lives are saved every year. Even though he died in 2005, he continues to save lives with each passing year through his work. Like Dr. Borlaug, his heroism only compounds with time. Even Tony Stark can’t boast that.

Most people alive today don’t realize just how bad it was before these vaccines were developed. Many diseases, some of which you’ve probably never heard of, were rampant. Before Dr. Hilleman helped develop the vaccine, measles alone infected between 3 and 4 million people every year in the United states, killing at between 400 and 500 at a time.

Children and the elderly were especially vulnerable. It was once just a fact of life that these diseases would come around and kill a sizable number of children. It was as unavoidable as bad weather.

Take a moment to imagine life in those conditions. One day, you or your children would just get sick and there was nothing you could do to prevent it. That was life before these remarkable advances came along.

That’s why when people say that nothing has saved more lives than vaccines, they’re not peddling propaganda. They’re just sharing the results of basic math. It’s because of men like Dr. Maurice Hilleman that these numbers are what they are. However, his name is not well-known, even in a field that has become more prominent.

Most people know who Edward Jenner is and appreciate how many lives he saved by combating Smallpox.

Most people know who Jonas Salk is and appreciate how many people he helped by developing a polio vaccine.

Now, what these men did was remarkable. They certainly deserve the praise and admiration they receive for developing their respective vaccines. However, Dr. Maurice Hilleman still deserves to be in that same echelon. For the number of vaccines he helped develop and the legacy he left, he certainly put in the work and accomplished a great deal.

The diseases Dr. Hilleman battled might not have been as high-profile as Smallpox or polio, but they were every bit as damaging. That makes it all the more frustrating to see efforts like the anti-vaxx movement take hold, which has led to resurgences of diseases like measles in certain communities. That is not the direction we should be going right now.

In the midst of a historic pandemic, the importance of medical science and those who work in it has never been more critical. This might be the best possible time to acknowledge the work of men like Dr. Hilleman. Even after this pandemic has passed, we should all appreciate work like his even more.

None of us have superpowers like Spider-Man or Superman.

Most of us will never be as rich, smart, or resourceful as Iron Man or Batman.

Dr. Hilleman had none of this. Just like Dr. Borlaug, he came from a poor family. At one point, he didn’t have enough money for college. He still persevered and he still managed to do the work that went onto save millions of lives. It might not be a hero’s story on par with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s still a special kind of heroism.

So, on this day as we anxiously wait for this pandemic to end, take a moment to appreciate the work of Dr. Maurice Hilleman. It’s because of him that such pandemics are so rare. It’s also because of him that this current pandemic won’t take nearly as many lives as it could’ve.

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Vaccine Update: The Impact Of The Moderna Vaccine (Beyond COVID-19)

Sometimes, it takes a terrible global crisis to spurn huge leaps in technology. World War II was arguably the greatest crisis of the modern era, but it helps advance some of the greatest technological leaps in history. We can argue whether those advances were worth all the death and destruction, but there’s no denying that our world wouldn’t be the same without them.

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t on the same level as World War II, but it is, by most measures, the greatest crisis the world has faced in the past 50 years. It hasn’t just caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and immeasurable amounts of suffering. It has completely disrupted this big, interconnected world that we’ve come to depend on.

We’ve all lost something in this pandemic. Beyond the loved ones who have perished, our entire sense of security and hope has been shattered. We now realize just how vulnerable we were and how inevitable this was. As bad as it is, there is some good coming out of it.

Usually, a crisis like this helps break down the barriers that divided us and hindered progress, technological or otherwise. Never before has the world been more united or engaged in a singular effort. Before 2020, we probably didn’t know much about vaccines or vaccine research. We just knew that Jenny McCarthy tried to be relevant again by protesting them.

That’s changing now. The global effort to create a vaccine for this terrible disease has been watched and agonized over for months. Most recently, we got a much-needed glimmer of hope from Pfizer, who reported that their vaccine is 90 percent effective. I celebrated this news like everyone else.

Then, we got an even greater glimmer of hope from the other vaccine front-runner by Moderna. Not only is their vaccine in the final phase of testing, like Pfizer. It’s even more effective and promises to be easier to store and distribute.

CNN: Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine is 94.5% effective, according to company data

The Moderna vaccine is 94.5% effective against coronavirus, according to early data released Monday by the company, making it the second vaccine in the United States to have a stunningly high success rate.

“These are obviously very exciting results,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor. “It’s just as good as it gets — 94.5% is truly outstanding.”

Moderna heard its results on a call Sunday afternoon with members of the Data Safety and Monitoring Board, an independent panel analyzing Moderna’s clinical trial data.

This is objectively great news in a year when we’ve had precious little of it. These two vaccines may very well be the one-two punch we need to end the COVID-19 pandemic and return to some semblance of normalcy. I would still like to go to a movie theater or baseball game at some point in 2021. These vaccines may make that possible.

However, I’d like to take a moment to speculate beyond this terrible pandemic that has uprooted so many lives. I know that’s not easy to do when the crisis is still very relevant and inflicting plenty of suffering. I still think it’s worth attempting, if only to imagine the better world that emerges from this mess.

That’s because both these vaccines aren’t like your typical flu shots. For one, flu shots aren’t nearly as effective as what Pfizer and Moderna reported. According to the CDC, you’re average flu shot is between 40 and 60 percent effective. That’s still important because the flu can be deadly. Anything you do to reduce it can only further public health, in general.

The problem is the flu shot, and most vaccines like it, are based on old technology. At their most basic, they take a non-infectious or weakened strain of a pathogen and use it to amp up your body’s immunity. It’s crude, but it works. Literally nothing has saved more lives than vaccines.

The problem is that vaccines are notoriously hard to develop. They take a long time to test and an even longer time to approve. Until this pandemic, there just wasn’t much incentive to improve on that process. Now, after these past 8 months, the incentive couldn’t have been greater.

That’s what sped up the development of mRNA vaccines, the technology behind both Pfizer and Moderna. It was reported on as far back as 2018. While this technology isn’t completely new, it has never been developed beyond a certain point. There just wasn’t any incentive to do so. A global crisis changed that.

Very simply, an mRNA vaccine does one better on traditional vaccines by using RNA to develop immunity. It’s not as easy as it sounds. To develop that immunity, it has encode itself with just the right antigen. That way, the antibodies it creates can attack the desired pathogen.

In the case of COVID-19, the mRNA vaccine attacks the distinct spike protein the virus uses to attach to host cells. It’s like a missile targeting a specific individual in a large crowd by locking onto the distinct hat they wear.

This approach has the potential to be much more effective at generating immunity to a particular disease. Instead of trying to mimic a virus, it just gives the immune system the necessary software it needs to do the work. It could potentially revolutionize the way we treat and prevent diseases.

For years, certain viruses like the flu and HIV have confounded efforts to develop a vaccine. Beyond the problems I listed earlier with regards to testing, the difficulty of creating a particular immune response to a particular antigen is very difficult. These viruses mutate and change all the time. With COVID, vaccines do have an advantage because they have a distinct feature.

The challenge for future vaccines against future pandemics is quickly uncovering a particular antigen that the mRNA can be coded for. In theory, all you would have to do is find the one key antigen that’s common to every strain of the virus. While viruses like the flu are notoriously diverse, they can only change so much.

It’s akin to trying to identify an army of spies in a large crowd. They may all look different on the outside, but if they all have the same socks, then that’s what you code for. With some refinements, an mRNA vaccine can stop a pandemic in its tracks before it ever gets beyond a certain point.

That assumes we’ll continue to refine this technology after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed. I certainly hope that’s the case. This year has traumatized entire generations with how much pain and suffering it has inflicted. I sincerely hope that gives plenty of motivation to develop technology like this. That way, we never have to endure a disruption like this again.

To all those who helped develop this technology and these two vaccines, I hope you appreciate the impact you’ll make with this technology. The number of lives they could save is incalculable. Future generations may not remember your names, but they will be forever grateful for this wondrous gift you’ve given them.

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Why You Should Be Pessimistic About Optimistic News On Vaccines

In general, I’m a pretty optimistic person. I try to focus on the positives, even when I’m surrounded by a lot of negatives. It’s part of my personality. Granted, I wasn’t always like that. As a teenager, I was a pretty miserable, jaded, self-loathing cynic. There’s a long story behind that, but it’s not important right now

The reason I make that disclaimer is because the past few months have killed my sense of optimism. Actually, that’s an understatement. The impact of this massive global pandemic has taken my optimism, shot it five times with a shotgun, and ran it over eight times with a fully loaded pickup truck. My optimism is dead. It will be for the foreseeable future. That’s what this pandemic has done.

At this point, I question the sanity of anyone who has clung to any sense of optimism. Thousands of people are dead. Infections are in the millions. Things are getting worse every day. That’s not an opinion. That’s just basic goddamn math.

Now, I’m not trying to turn everyone into a pessimist, nor am I trying to crush everyone’s hopes. The point I want to make here is that there are just some things that hope cannot help, no matter how many inspirational quotes you read. Yes, hope and optimism can go a long way in many fields. A global pandemic just isn’t one of them.

To that point, I want to highlight the recent “optimism” surrounding vaccine research. I admit I too have been following this closely, too. How can you not? Even a cynic would agree. The best way to end this pandemic and get our lives back is with a vaccine. That’s somewhat distressing, given all the negative press vaccines had leading up to this moment.

At the same time, it’s remarkable how much the world has united behind this effort. I can’t remember a time when so many countries and so many organizations were this unified in their effort to achieve something. I want to find hope in that, but there are still a few intractable problem. This time, it has to do with both math and physics.

Making a vaccine is hard. There’s just no way around it. Even if you know the exact molecular sequence, producing it on a mass scale and distributing it to a large number of people is also difficult. It’s not a matter of will. It’s a matter of resources and logistics, the likes of which can’t be solved overnight or even within a year.

For that reason, when you see a positive story about a vaccine for COVID-19, you should be very pessimistic. Just look at this recent story from the Associated Press regarding Moderna’s vaccine research.

AP: First COVID-19 vaccine tested in US poised for final testing

There’s no guarantee but the government hopes to have results around the end of the year — record-setting speed for developing a vaccine.

The vaccine requires two doses, a month apart.

There were no serious side effects. But more than half the study participants reported flu-like reactions to the shots that aren’t uncommon with other vaccines — fatigue, headache, chills, fever and pain at the injection site. For three participants given the highest dose, those reactions were more severe; that dose isn’t being pursued.

Some of those reactions are similar to coronavirus symptoms but they’re temporary, lasting about a day and occur right after vaccination, researchers noted.

“Small price to pay for protection against COVID,” said Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University Medical Center, a vaccine expert who wasn’t involved with the study.

He called the early results “a good first step,” and is optimistic that final testing could deliver answers about whether it’s really safe and effective by the beginning of next year.

On the surface, it looks rosy. It hints that a vaccine is getting closer. It may even arrive at the end of the year. They’re even saying that research is moving at record speed. It all sounds so great.

Don’t get your hopes up.

Don’t expect this pandemic to be over by Christmas, either.

Notice that I bolded the phrase “a good first step.” Also, note how few details about the research are actually listed or linked to. It just notes how many people were involved and how many will be utilized in the next step. That’s both a sign and a red flag.

It’s a common problem whenever the media tries to report on science. Actual scientific research, namely the kind reported in journals, is not the kind of thing you can fit into a simple news blurb. You can’t fit it in an article, let alone a tweet. Most scientific research, especially of the medical variety, involves a lot of numbers, intimate details, and chemical constructs that most people aren’t equipped to understand.

It’s not that the news media has to dumb it down for us, the public. It just can only report on the broadest details. Those details often include the various complications and shortcomings of the research. Make no mistake. Those complications are there. If they weren’t, then the scientific research wouldn’t be necessary. It’s why becoming a doctor is so difficult and laborious.

I don’t doubt for a second that most of these doctors want to end this pandemic. Some are probably hopeful that they’re close. However, you can’t be a good doctor without sticking to rigorous science. Breakthroughs don’t happen all at once. Those light-bulb moments we see in movies and TV shows aren’t even close to what happens in real life.

In real life, medical breakthroughs still take years if not decades. The sheer complexity of disease and our methods for treating it preclude easy fixes to big problems. In terms of problems, pandemics are as big as they come. If ending it required only one breakthrough, it would’ve been found by now and thousands of lives wouldn’t have been lost.

That’s why you should never look at vaccine news in terms of a breakthrough. Even headlines that inspire hope in this field can only ever tell part of the story. Unfortunately, science is hard and so is creating effective medicine. You can’t rush it. You can’t encourage it. It’s at the mercy of hard limits that you can’t bullshit your way around. That’s what makes it hard. It’s also why it works.

Remember that the next time you see headlines about the prospect of vaccine research. Don’t assume it’s going to finish tomorrow. Don’t assume a miracle will speed it up. That’s not how science works and that’s not how this pandemic will end. For now, the best we can do is endure, brace ourselves, and retain our sanity until things eventually do change for the better.

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A (Hopeful) Perspective On The Coronavirus

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As a general rule, I always watch the news with a skeptical eye. That’s not just because we live in an era of fake news, misguided outrage, and conspiracy theories about shape-shifting lizard people. I’ve learned from time, experience, and observation that the news can only ever tell part of a story as it’s happening. The full story never comes out until much later. Sometimes, it’s years later.

That’s not easy when following stories like the coronavirus. Unlike other major news stories that make headlines for all the wrong reasons, this is a serious issue. This is something the public needs to know about. The coronavirus is not just a nasty cold. It’s killing people all over the world. That’s an indisputable fact and one that warrants serious concern.

At the same time, there’s a context worth noting. As bad as the coronavirus is, it’s not the second coming of the Black Death or the Spanish Flu. This is not the kind of disease that will turn the planet into a post-apocalyptic wasteland in the mold of a Stephen King novel. It’s still serious, but it’s not a global cataclysm. Even if it ends up killing millions, there are over 7.6 billion people on this planet.

Human beings adapt.

Human beings survive.

It’s one of the few things we’re good at.

There’s another perspective worth considering when following the news of the coronavirus. Unlike the devastating plagues of the past, humanity has developed a decent infrastructure for medicine, technology, and research. Granted, it took us centuries of trial, error, and mass death and there’s still plenty of room for improvement, but that system is there. It’s better than nothing. Just ask Medieval Europe.

That system is already doing its job in combating the virus. Already, researchers at the University of Texas in Austin have mapped out critical portions of the virus. That sort of thing couldn’t have been done this quickly or at all just 30 years ago. This data is critical for the development of treatments and, ultimately, a vaccine.

The fact that this happened so quickly after the outbreak is something the news hasn’t reported on. Even if treatments develop and the virus is contained, as we’ve seen with other recent outbreaks, it probably won’t be a huge story within the ever-changing news cycle.

We know this because in late 2019, the first vaccine for Ebola was approved for use by the FDA and it barely showed up in the headlines. Considering how much panic the Ebola outbreak caused several years ago, this is quite a triumph. It shows just how quickly our current system can respond to these diseases.

Again, there’s still room for improvement and accessibility to medicine is a major issue, but the coronavirus is not some new form of disease. It’s a virus. We know what viruses are. We have the technology to study, treat, and combat them, more so than we have at any point in human history. Considering how much better we’ve gotten since the heyday of the AIDS pandemic, I say that’s reason to be hopeful.

That doesn’t mean we should let our guard down. When the CDC issues a warning about the coronavirus, we should take it seriously. At the same time, we should take comfort in the knowledge that we live in an era where human ingenuity has limited the suffering caused by these devastating plagues.

As with Ebola, we will eventually develop a treatment for the coronavirus. It won’t be perfect, but it will limit the death and suffering it causes. It also won’t make the news because it’s just not scary or dire enough. At this point, finding effective treatments for diseases is so mundane it barely qualifies as news. That’s an objectively good thing.

I hope that helps provide a bit of context and hope to the news surrounding the coronavirus. It’s still worth taking seriously, but we shouldn’t let grim headlines distract us from the great things that humanity achieves when faced with a challenge.

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