Can an Old Soviet-Era Idea Help Fight this New Virus?

By Shlomo Maital  

Dr. Marina Voroshilova and Dr. Mikhail Chumakov, left

      Sometimes, you battle a new foe, like the novel coronavirus, with an old idea – even one dating from Soviet Russia. Writing in today’s New York Times, Andrew Kramer describes a 60-year-old idea used by two virologists in the USSR, Marina Voroshilova and Mikhail Chumakov, that may be helpful in today’s pandemic.

       It sounds preposterous – use, say, polio vaccine to fight COVID-19? Really?

       Here is the basic idea:

     “We formed a kind of line,” Dr. Peter Chumakov, who was 7 at the time, recalled in an interview. Into each waiting mouth, a parent popped a sugar cube laced with weakened poliovirus — an early vaccine against a dreaded disease. “I was eating it from the hands of my mother.” Today, that same vaccine is gaining renewed attention from researchers — including those brothers, who all grew up to be virologists — as a possible weapon against the new coronavirus, based in part on research done by their mother, Dr. Marina Voroshilova. 

    “Dr. Voroshilova established that the live polio vaccine had an unexpected benefit that, it turns out, could be relevant to the current pandemic: People who got the vaccine did not become sick with other viral illnesses for a month or so afterward. She took to giving the boys polio vaccine each fall, as protection against flu.   Now, some scientists in several countries are taking a keen interest in the idea of repurposing existing vaccines, like the one with live 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.”

     The current pandemic has brought a tidal wave of creative ideas. Most fail. A few succeed. Even preposterous ideas, like enlisting polio vaccine, are worth a shot. The novel coronavirus is wily, clever, sneaky and in some places mutating; so we humans need to be at least half as smart as it is.