‘I was lucky to find this vaccine anywhere’

Stanley Plotkin, legendary vaccinologist, on the historic development and chaotic distribution of covid-19 vaccines
DOYLESTOWN, PA — JANUARY 25, 2021: Dr. Stanley Plotkin, 88, stands for a portrait in the front yard of his home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania on Monday, January 25, 2021. Dr. Plotkin has worked in development of several vaccines over the last 60 years, and has served as an adviser to manufacturers and governing bodies concerning vaccines. (Photo by Michelle Gustafson for The Washington Post)

I’ve been so focused on helping to develop these vaccines that I barely thought about the mechanics of getting it myself until this month. How can our process be this complicated? I’ve been calling around now for the last several weeks. I could not find out where, or when, or how to receive a vaccine. I didn’t get anywhere.

About this series
Voices from the Pandemic is an oral history of covid-19 and those affected.

I’m 88 years old. I’m in the priority group, and I qualify by all the Phase One recommendations. That should be enough. I don’t want to jump ahead of anyone in the line. I don’t want to call somebody up on the phone and say: “You know, I actually consulted on this vaccination process. I wrote the textbook on vaccines.”

If I’m not able to get in through the normal channels, that means a lot of people like me are not getting in, and that’s a big problem. We shouldn’t be experiencing this level of chaos in a developed country at a time like this. I live in a suburb of Doylestown, which is the county seat here in Bucks County, so it’s not like I’m way out in the hinterlands. I did research online and registered for all sorts of things with the state and county, and I never heard back. I called and called and couldn’t find a way to get vaccinated within 20 miles of my house. My wife got frustrated on my behalf and started searching outside the area, and just by chance a few days ago she found a hospital in a different town that had openings left for the Moderna vaccine. I’ve barely left home to get the newspaper, but I was lucky to find this vaccine anywhere. I realize a big part of the problem is the lack of supply, but millions of people are being left on their own to navigate this disorganized mess. It’s a free-for-all. What kind of system is that?

The whole experience of this pandemic has taken us through the emotional extremes. There’s my frustration with our national response, which has not been proportional to the threat of this virus. But I also try to focus my mind on the encouraging moments, and we’ve had many. Our vaccine development has been remarkable. There are many reasons for doom and gloom, but the science is sustaining.

Let’s not exaggerate my own role in all of this. I don’t have a laboratory anymore, so all I can do is consult. I’ve been offering my advice to the World Health Organization and the Gates Foundation. I serve on a board for Moderna and communicate with Oxford, Sanofi and Inovio. I helped create the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and it’s supporting the development of about eight vaccines, but I can’t take credit for what’s come down the line. I’ve been cheering from the sidelines and shouting out my suggestions. I’ve been incredibly busy without ever leaving my house.

What I’ve been focused on lately is advocating within these organizations for a change in our vaccination strategy, so we get one dose to as many people as possible over the next few months. I’ve looked over the data, and it suggests that you have pretty good immune protection starting 12 days after the first dose. Obviously, you need a second dose to get long-term protection, but the immune system stays primed for the second dose for at least six months. I’m suggesting we wait on the second dose for up to 12 weeks until our supply improves. Otherwise a lot more people are going to be calling around and striking out like I’ve been doing. It’s a controversial approach, but an extraordinary disease requires extraordinary solutions.

Stanley Plotkin, 88, sits for a portrait in his home in Doylestown, Pa., on Jan. 25. (Michelle Gustafson for The Washington Post)

Now, will anybody listen to me? I don’t know. One of the advantages of being older and somewhat respected is that people are polite about soliciting my advice, even if they don’t always take it. They value my experience. I cut my teeth on polio and anthrax in the 1950s. I developed the rubella vaccine that’s now in standard use throughout the world, and I’ve worked on vaccines for rotavirus, rabies, Lyme disease, and cytomegalovirus. When I first started, we only had two ways to develop a vaccine, and now we have many more methods that show incredible promise. More than 100 vaccines are being developed against this virus — all in record time. Science is cumulative. It builds steadily toward progress, and that’s been my answer to despair during this last year. I can look back over my life and see a degree of advancement that’s staggering.

We can say with justification that vaccines have changed the world, and that gives me hope that they can do so again. I had contracted three diseases by the time I was 10 years old that are now prevented by vaccine: pertussis, pneumococcal pneumonia and severe influenza. At that time, only a handful of vaccines were given to children. Now, at least 16 are on the routine schedule. Parents can expect their children to grow up, and that’s a relatively new thing. It shouldn’t be taken for granted. But because people now have the great luxury of forgetting about these diseases, we are starting to run into all kinds of strange conspiracy theories about vaccines. Some people revert back to the Dark Ages of mysticism and pseudoscience. The White House had that guy [Scott] Atlas. I mean, my God! The minimizing, the skepticism about masks — you couldn’t have made it up. Then there are people like Andrew Wakefield or Robert Kennedy, who have influence and use it to spout nonsense about vaccines, and that’s dangerous.

If I were president, every child in the country would be required to take a course in statistics. Opinions don’t count for all that much. Facts count, and we have a lot of data about the safety of vaccines. Nobody can say vaccines are 100 percent safe. There’s nothing that’s 100 percent safe. That’s ridiculous. But there is a system in place, called the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, to financially compensate people for vaccine reactions, in which the evidence is presented to a panel that weighs the facts and then decides. It works out to be about one compensable reaction per every one million doses of any particular vaccine. So then you have to ask yourself: What is the risk of the disease at the moment? This virus is replicating. It is constantly making more of itself, and during that process there are always variations and mutations that occur. I don’t think there is any doubt that the risk of this disease is a hell of a lot bigger. Any reasonable person should accept vaccines on the basis of logic. Unfortunately, logic does not predominate around the world.

Organisms, viruses — they are not going away. They will continue to cause epidemics. This virus will likely persist in the form of sporadic cases and occasional outbreaks no matter how hard we try. What we may be looking to is an influenza-like situation, with a virus that mutates over time, and we will have to tweak the vaccine sporadically to meet those changes. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m not optimistic this virus will entirely disappear. We live in a world where you can wake up in Kampala and go to bed in New York. The spread of viruses through human agency is more likely now than ever.

It’s not an exaggeration to say our future depends on finding solutions. That’s why I wanted to work in a laboratory ever since I was about 15. It is tedious and uncertain work, but it has aspects of an almost religious experience. You are that explorer in unknown territory. I think back to a Tennyson poem, “Ulysses,” which I quoted long ago in my college yearbook: “To follow knowledge like a sinking star, beyond the outmost bounds of human thought.”

Say all you want about the horrors of this last year, but we have reached those outmost bounds. We have accomplished more than I would have imagined possible, and it’s been a global effort. It’s astounding. It’s thrilling. I was about to say it’s miraculous, but that’s not right. I don’t believe in miracles. It might sound a little fancy, but I believe in science. I believe in our capacity to endure and overcome.

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