The Vaccine Is Everything!

Successful vaccines result from one little known man's work.

Posted Jan 08, 2021

The ability of drug companies like Moderna and Pfizer to bring vaccines to the public in record time builds on the work of an unsung pioneer Maurice Hilleman. Hilleman's work likely saved more lives than that of any person in history.

This virologist developed 8 of the 14 vaccines that are widely used today. The fact that Hilleman was overlooked for a Nobel Prize is a sad travesty and exposes the wide gap between achievement and recognition.

Hilleman's Scientific Achievement

Before Hilleman, there was no reliable procedure for producing vaccines that were both safe and effective. His signature method was to grow the pathogen in the lab and progressively weaken it over many generations by growing it inside chicken eggs.

Ultimately, the pathogen became adapted to the avian host and lost its capacity to sicken humans although it still caused an immune reaction that was sufficient to set up a defense against exposure to the original pathogen.

Hilleman contributed no fewer than 8 of the 14 vaccines commonly used today. These are for chickenpox, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, meningitis, mumps, measles, Haemophilus influenza bacteria, and streptococcus. Throughout his long career, he developed more than 40 different vaccines. These vaccines are estimated to save 8 million lives every year. He pioneered combining vaccines for measles, mumps, and rubella.

His Japanese B encephalitis vaccine was used to inoculate US troops during World War II. Hilleman did groundbreaking work on flu viruses and studied how the virus changes from year to year, yielding the conclusion that a different vaccine is needed to be prepared for each season. This work earned a Distinguished Service Medal from the Army.

Hilleman worked on adenoviruses that cause colds and prepared vaccines against viruses thought to cause cancer.

Despite his many achievements, Hilleman was modest and never one to blow his own trumpet. This helps explain why so few people know about him. Astonishingly, most of the doctors who supervise the injection of his vaccines into children have likely never heard of him.

Hilleman as an Academic Outsider?

The omission of Hilleman's name from the Nobel honors exposes a real weakness in the selection process.

Hilleman certainly had many connections with the academic community throughout his life. The trouble was that he did not have close connections with the Ivy-League type of universities that advise the Swedish Academy and promote scholars that they know well.

The fact that he could slip through the cracks highlights a glaring weakness in the Nobel Prizes and it is certainly not the only one. For example, they ignore new sciences, such as psychology, so that Pavlov was honored for physiology and medicine, as were more recent laureates in our field. Nevertheless, it is still possible that Hilleman might receive a posthumous award and that the current experience with COVID may shed new light on his contributions.

Bad as this pandemic is, it would have been a great deal worse in the absence of Hilleman's contributions given that he essentially invented the entire field of modern vaccinology.

What Hilleman Meant for the COVID-19 Vaccine

Without Hilleman's foundational work, it is likely that we would not have had a vaccine against COVID-19. Technology changes rapidly, of course. There are currently six approved vaccines around the world.

The most promising use RNA technology that targets specific proteins on the virus. These are the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines that have high efficacy but must be stored at very low temperatures.

The two vaccines developed by Chinese companies are conventional inactivated viruses, similar to Hilleman's vaccines, that are quite highly effective in addition to being comparatively cheap to produce and easy to store.

The remaining two vaccines are of the viral vector type—one developed by Russian scientists and the other by Oxford University and Astra Zeneca. These are easy to store but are probably no more effective than the regular flu virus judging from botched trials in England where the wrong doses were delivered by accident.

While much is made of the speed of delivery of these vaccines, it is worth remembering that Hilleman was the first person to both predict and prevent a pandemic. He predicted that the Hong Kong flu of 1957 would reach the U.S. and prepared a vaccine before its arrival. Although 80,000 Americans died, the vaccine is estimated to have saved a million people.