Kendall Hoyt

 

On her book Long Shot: Vaccines for National Defense

Cover Interview of March 19, 2012

A close-up

I think the casual reader might be surprised to discover that the military made significant contributions to over half of the vaccines developed in the twentieth century.

Just as military interest in weapons manufacturing, information systems, and machine control inspired innovation, so too has military interest in the problems of disease control.

Fighting disease has always been equally, if not more important for the military than fighting the enemy.  Prior to World War II, soldiers died more often of disease than battle injuries.  War magnifies the spread and severity of disease by causing large-scale social dislocations and by consolidating large populations of physically stressed individuals. Preventive measures are preferable to therapeutic measures for operational reasons because they reduce sick days.

Not only did military scientists develop a set of skills that were particularly well-suited for vaccine development, they had a number of built in advantages:  excellent record keeping, a relatively homogenous demographic, and an international network of labs that brought them into close proximity with the populations directly affected by the disease under study.  These circumstances facilitated efforts to identify new diseases and to evaluate new vaccine candidates.

The Walter Reed Army Institute for Research (WRAIR) became a center of excellence for infectious disease research and vaccine development during the Cold War and instilled an entire generation of vaccine scientists with a unique set of interdisciplinary research skills.  WRAIR alumni filled top positions in academia, industry, and government and they often worked together to facilitate the development of many mid-century vaccines.

By the end of the cold war, funding for vaccine research began to shift from WRAIR to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  While the NIH excels at early stage discovery, it is not as well suited to the highly collaborative development work required to generate viable vaccine candidates for industry.  The NIH began to produce a new generation of scientists with highly specialized skills and impressive publication records, but these scientists were less well adapted to the translational challenges of vaccine development.