A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 184

A 1949 poster from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.

Wednesday, January 6

On a day featuring two amazing progressive Senate wins in Georgia…and a mind-blowing violent right-wing invasion of the U.S. Capitol…the COVID-19 crisis is all but forgotten. 

Yet coronavirus cases continue to mount. Much of the pandemic news coverage has focused on the question of whether the vaccine rollout has been too slow. “The effort to vaccinate millions of New Yorkers against the virus has been off to a sluggish start, alarming city and health officials at a time when infection numbers are surging and a more contagious variant has been detected in the state,” says The New York Times.

But my reading about polio makes me wonder: Has the COVID-19 vaccine rollout been too fast?

Consider this: In 1954, the Salk polio vaccine was new. During that year 600,000 kids were injected with the vaccine as a test. Thousands more were given a placebo rather than the actual vaccine, as a way of checking the vaccine’s effectiveness. Over one million kids took part in the testing. 

Then, a Vaccine Evaluation Center at the University of Michigan studied the results for around a year before the vaccine was made available to the general public.

Today, in the case of the COVID-19 vaccine, only about 60,000 people were tested by Moderna and Pfizer before the public began getting the vaccine. 

That’s about one-tenth the number tested for the Salk vaccine. Overall, the process has been hugely accelerated. It’s “Operation Warp Speed,” don’t you know.

So what happened? Are we so desperate to get this COVID inoculation that testing has been downplayed?

Back in 1954, even with the slower pace of polio vaccine deployment, there were problems. “It turned out that the amazing success of the Salk trials had led the public to demand an immediate release of the vaccine,” writes medical historian David Oshinsky. “The government had quickly relented, allowing five drug companies to ramp up production without proper oversight. The worst offender, Cutter Laboratories of Berkley, California, released a vaccine so contaminated with live poliovirus that 164 children were permanently paralyzed and 10 died.”

Medical science has undoubtedly come a long way in the ensuing decades. Oshinsky says that no safety corners have been cut today, but he admits that there has been no peer review of Pfizer and Moderna’s claims, as is usual. We can only hope that this time, pressure from the public and politicians has not been so intense that standards have again been relaxed.

Entertainment: NPR coverage of the wild events in Washington, D.C., followed by episodes of Last Tango in Halifax on Netflix.

Dinner: lentil soup with hot dogs and a green salad. 

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 160

“Dear Diary….”

Sunday, October 18

Shouldn’t Mike Pence have a diary? These are historic times, and someday he’ll be able to publish such an account for big bucks. So maybe I could help him write it–give him some ideas right here on the blog.

That could be funny, right? Lots of ponderous piety (“I prayed hourly for the President to overcome his bout of the Chinese virus”); peculiar reflections regarding Old Testament quotes (“Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man” conjures thoughts about haircuts during the lockdown). Amy Coney Barrett’s much-reported life story could trigger memories of Pence’s college-years defection from Catholicism to evangelical religion. There could be comparisons of Pence’s own picayune misuse of political donations to Trump’s massive debts and scandalous financial doings. And of course, he’d share private doubts about the Commander-in-Chief’s depraved comments and debauched alley-cat behavior. 

But to write such a mock diary well, I would have to immerse myself in the true-life details of Pence’s life—and who could stand to do that? 

Better to devote my postings to interesting stuff, including articles I am reading.

The New York Review of Books daily newsletter recently ran a valuable article comparing health-care coverage in countries around the world. In a review of Ezekiel Emanuel’s Which Country Has the World’s Best Health Care? historian David Oshinsky discussed the merits and demerits of systems from the Netherlands to Taiwan and the United States. So, which is the best?

Naturally, it depends. Just what is your priority? Short wait times vs. the most professional and up-to-date care? So-called elective surgery? Universal coverage? Drug costs?

Not surprisingly, surveys put the U.S. at or near the bottom in most categories. But regarding first place, “there are too many variables and too few precise measurements to pick an overall winner,” the article says. Emanuel places Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Taiwan at the top. Personally, the book author has said, he’d pick the innovative Dutch system.

One of the surprise revelations of this piece is Oshinsky’s opening anecdote, which describes President Harry Truman’s late-1940s effort to enact an American national health care plan. It seems that, during World War I, Truman had been an Army artillery officer—and had become increasingly troubled by the poor health of recruits. Five million-plus draftees had been rejected due to poor health, and another 1.5 million inductees were soon sent home for similar reasons.

What was the problem? Americans couldn’t afford good health care: Two-thirds of the population lacked the means to overcome a health crisis. And there simply weren’t enough providers: Many rural counties had a 3,000 to 1 ratio of people to doctors. Once he was president, Truman resolved to do something about this. He wasn’t able to, thanks to the no-holds-barred opposition of the American Medical Association.

Oshinsky’s article is so quotable and informative that I am placing a permanent bookmark for it on my Internet favorites page.

Ever wonder just why GOPers and Trump are so fanatically opposed to the Affordable Care Act? I mean, the concept was invented by the right-wing Heritage Foundation and first put in place as Romney-care in Massachusetts.

 But Trump excoriates the ACA as “a disaster.” He’ll never tell you precisely why—just more invective, as we have come to expect from Mr. MAGA.

Well, here’s why: The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has an article showing that repeal of the ACA would dramatically cut taxes for the 1%—by an average of $198,000 per year.

 Moreover, “pharmaceutical companies would pay $2.8 billion less in taxes each year, even as millions of seniors would pay billions more for prescription drugs.”

So is the ACA a disaster? Maybe it’s just the 1% being forced to forego that third bottle of Dom Perignon.

Dinner tonight: all veggies. Stir-fried sugar snap peas in ginger and garlic, plus a baked Kabocha squash.

Entertainment: More episodes of of Better Call Saul and All Creatures Great and Small.