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The U.S. and Russia could join forces to get people vaccinated. They did before.

The forgotten history of Soviet-American vaccine diplomacy

Residents receive the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine behind screens at a mass vaccination center inside Gostiny Dvor, also known as Old Merchant Court, in Moscow, on July 10, 2021. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg News)

Despite the deterioration in relations between the United States and Russia, there’s some hope that new forms of “vaccine diplomacy” may once again take hold. The June 2021 summit held in Geneva between President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin suggests the two countries are open to high-level dialogue.

But, as history shows, much more could be done to strengthen ties in the name of global public health. Decades ago, in the midst of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union worked together in surprising ways to combat polio and smallpox. These collaborative efforts averted millions of deaths around the world.

Until Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, U.S.-Soviet scientific engagement remained limited, despite rising polio cases in both countries. Then, relations between the Soviet Union and the West improved during Nikita Khrushchev’s “Thaw.” Starting in the mid-1950s, Khrushchev initiated cultural and societal reform, aiming for “peaceful coexistence” with the West and the end of the repressive Stalin era.

The Thaw paved the way for greater collaboration between scientists. Albert B. Sabin was a leading American virologist. He met his Soviet counterpart Mikhail P. Chumakov in 1956, when both scientists made government-approved visits to each other’s countries to cooperate in the fight against polio. They recognized the value of working together because the perceived threat of infectious disease transcended the East-West divide.

Vaccine diplomacy between the United States and the Soviet Union took place amid and despite Cold War tensions. Certain key factors played a role in fostering scientific cooperation during the Khrushchev years. One such factor was the 1958 Lacy-Zarubin Agreement, which encouraged official bilateral exchanges in science, technology, the arts and other areas. This agreement provided crucial structure for public health engagement.

Sabin had developed an oral polio vaccine and sent his virus strains to Chumakov on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Sabin’s live vaccine had the potential to immunize millions of people at a faster rate and lower cost than Jonas Salk’s “killed” vaccine, and a partnership with Chumakov ensured that it would have a lasting global impact. Using Sabin’s strains of the virus, Chumakov produced and then tested the oral vaccine on 10 million children across the Soviet Union in 1959.

In a letter he wrote in December 1959, Chumakov began, “My dear Doctor Sabin,” reflecting the warm personal relationship between the two experts. “I am very glad to tell you that your vaccine has been winning new victories in our country. The number vaccinated is steadily increasing which reflects the simple fact — great advantages of the live oral vaccine over the killed one.” He continued, “The evidence of epidemiologic effectiveness of mass vaccinations keeps accumulating greatly.”

In 1960, approximately 100 million people in the Eastern Bloc, including a whopping 77 million people younger than 20 in the Soviet Union, were vaccinated. Although polio primarily infects children under 5, older children and adults can also contract the disease.

The impact of the collaboration between Sabin and Chumakov extended well beyond the borders of Eastern and Central Europe. For instance, Asian countries, including Japan, received the vaccine from the Soviet Union. In 1962, the oral polio vaccine was federally licensed for use in the United States.

A decade later, when Sabin made the altruistic decision to donate his strains to the World Health Organization, global access to the vaccine increased considerably. By 1984, the vaccine was widely distributed in the United States, the Soviet Union, China and other “temperate-climate countries with a combined total population of almost 2 billion people.” The vaccine was not as prevalent in tropical and subtropical nations. Four years later, the World Health Assembly established the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. This was so successful that today polio is endemic only in two countries: Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This polio campaign was not a one-off collaboration. In the 1960s, the United States provided funding as the Soviet Union developed a freeze-dried smallpox vaccine and prepared 450 million doses for developing countries worldwide. By the late 1970s, thanks in no small part to these efforts, smallpox was considered eradicated. In a relatively short period of time, the United States and the Soviet Union became leaders in the realm of global health, protecting people around the world from infectious diseases.

Today, the history of U.S.-Soviet collaboration in fighting polio and smallpox remains largely forgotten, in part because of rising tensions between the U.S. and Russia in recent years.

In the decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. and Russia have attempted to encourage engagement in the public health realm. In 2009, then-presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev created the Bilateral Presidential Commission (BPC) to foster dialogue and enhance cooperation through working groups in key areas of U.S.-Russia relations, including health. Two years later, the two sides even signed a Protocol of Intent on Cooperation for the Global Eradication of Polio, demonstrating that the legacy of polio cooperation exists. But the “reset” between the U.S. and Russia did not last long. In the wake of the Ukraine crisis, the U.S. suspended the BPC in 2014.

When SARS-CoV-2, a new coronavirus, emerged five years later in 2019 and caused a pandemic, relations between the U.S. and Russia were at a low point. Although President Donald Trump personally venerated Putin, Russian interference in both the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections and the United States’ continued imposition of sanctions against Russia, among other issues, caused tensions to escalate even further. Both countries were unprepared, even unwilling, to put aside their differences to effectively engage in vaccine diplomacy, marking a departure from previous collaborative efforts at the height of the Cold War.

The success of U.S.-Soviet collaboration in the fight against polio in the late 1950s and 1960s stands in stark contrast to the lack of cooperation between the U.S. and Russia in the current coronavirus pandemic. According to the World Health Organization, as of Aug. 31, 2021, the U.S. had a total of 38,666,040 confirmed cases of coronavirus infections and 632,983 deaths, and Russia had 6,918,965 cases and 183,224 deaths.

Despite the pandemic’s devastating impact on both countries and the world at large, bilateral tensions have impeded joint efforts in vaccine development and distribution. Even though Russia has exported its Sputnik V vaccine globally, vaccine hesitancy and shortages have complicated efforts to vaccinate people domestically.

While half of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated, many Americans still remain vaccine-hesitant, and the U.S. has hindered the global effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus by hoarding vaccines. Beyond the current pandemic, the U.S. and Russia could also work together to develop vaccines against leishmaniasis, West Nile virus and other diseases. In addition, reviving the BPC or creating new frameworks to promote cooperation would follow historical precedent with proven success.

Many people are probably unaware that, against the backdrop of the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union engaged in vaccine diplomacy and saved millions of lives together.

Note: We are Fellows in the History Working Group of the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum (SURF). This article is based on our team’s larger research project on U.S.-Soviet vaccine diplomacy and the lack of U.S.-Russian cooperation today.