There was once a time when polio raged like a wildfire through the U.S.. Outbreaks of the disease resulted in thousands of deaths and left tens of thousands of survivors with mild to severe paralysis. Jonas Salk didn’t develop the first polio vaccination until the 1950s. In the following years, millions of doses of the polio vaccine were distributed throughout the U.S., and eventually the rest of the world.
While we haven’t seen polio rise to the disastrous levels of the past, a version of the poliovirus called Wild poliovirus (WPV) type 1 is still endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are also WPV strains that evolved from the vaccination and have circulated among human populations.
“Improving vaccines that are proven to prevent disease and stop pathogen transmission, is less glamorous than developing new vaccines, but perhaps more important,” Raul Andino, a virologist at the University of California in Berkeley, told The Daily Beast in an email. He added, “We think that the technical improvements can help to control poliomyelitis and poliovirus epidemics in the long run.”
Andino and a team of researchers published a study Wednesday in the journal Nature that found two new polio vaccine candidates that could help fight against these pernicious strains of the virus. The authors said that the vaccines are less likely to cause new poliovirus variants to emerge from the jab.
For this study, the researchers looked at the novel oral type 2 polio vaccine (nOPV2). It has shown in clinical studies to produce a powerful immune response while being genetically stable, and is less likely to lead to the emergence of novel variants.
The team then leveraged the approach used to develop nOPV2 to create vaccines for WPV types 1 and 3 called nOPV1 and nOPV3. All three vaccines were shown to cause a robust immune response in mice against all three types of poliovirus. The animals were shown to also be unaffected by the jabs.
“The vaccine candidates have a higher genetic stability than the previous poliovirus vaccinations. Andino explained that this means they’re less likely to recover fitness or cause vaccine-associated disease. This is one of the safest medical interventions that has ever been developed. So if vaccination campaigns are conducted properly, any issues associated with vaccination are unlikely to occur.”
Andino added that “clinical trials are on their way” and public health authorities will soon be armed with better tools to help eradicate polio for good. However, he cautioned that these vaccines can only be effective if there’s a good deployment strategy–a lesson that the world has already learned with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The primary challenges are social, economical, and cultural problems that prevent good vaccination campaigns,” he explained. “Designing safe and effective vaccination strategies is critical for the medicine to work.”
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