From Polio To The COVID Vaccine, Dr. Peter Salk Sees Great Progress At age 9, Dr. Salk was one of the first to get the polio vaccine in the 1950s that was invented by his father. Salk, now 76, says he's hugely impressed by the rapid development of the COVID vaccine.

From Polio To The COVID Vaccine, Dr. Peter Salk Sees Great Progress

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As this year winds down, we're looking back at people we spoke to earlier in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic was in its early stages. And now that there is a vaccine, we wanted to check in with a doctor whose family has a long history with vaccines. NPR's Greg Myre has this update.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: When I spoke with Dr. Peter Salk back in May, he told me the tale of receiving an early polio vaccine, the one invented by his father, Dr. Jonas Salk.


PETER SALK: I just hated injections. And my father came home with polio vaccine and some syringes and needles that he sterilized on the kitchen stove by boiling in water, lined us kids up and then administered the vaccine.

MYRE: Peter Salk was just 9 when he got that shot in 1953 at the family home outside Pittsburgh. The vaccine helped eradicate polio, made his father world-famous and shaped Peter Salk's own life. He also became a doctor of infectious diseases. But when we talked last spring, Dr. Salk expressed worry about the race for a COVID vaccine. He feared corners might be cut. He noted that his father, who died in 1995, needed seven years to develop a vaccine that was both effective and safe.


SALK: What concerns me is knowing that, in the past, there have been unexpected things that have taken place with vaccines that had not been foreseen.

MYRE: Back in the 1950s, one bad batch of the polio vaccine caused death, cases of paralysis and made many more reluctant to take the shot. But when I recently reached Salk at his home in La Jolla, Calif., just outside San Diego, he was very upbeat about the latest vaccines.

SALK: I was bowled over when the first news came out about the Pfizer-BioNTech results and being somewhere on the order of 95% effective. I mean, I just had a really strong emotional reaction that I totally had not anticipated.

MYRE: He says there could still be hiccups but nothing that can't be solved.

SALK: In my mind, so far, so good.

MYRE: Dr. Salk is concerned about the number of people who are reluctant or outright opposed to getting the vaccine, but he believes those numbers will shrink as people see the benefits. And besides, he says, this vaccine hesitancy is nothing new.

SALK: I was surprised when I first learned a few months ago about that Gallup poll in 1954 that indicated that about half the population were not wanting to make use of the polio vaccine.

MYRE: That was the year before the government authorized nationwide use. In the end, most everyone received it. The current pandemic has sharply curtailed Salk's movements. He's still a part-time professor of infectious diseases at the University of Pittsburgh, and he stopped traveling there. He spends most of his time at home and says his aching knees as well as the threat of the virus keep him from getting out in the neighborhood.

SALK: My wife and I have been extremely careful during this whole period. I'm probably going to continue to do social distancing and wear masks and take the precautions that I've been taking really until this thing is practically gone.

MYRE: Dr. Salk was at the front of the line when he got the polio vaccine as a kid. He's eager to get the new vaccine. But at age 76 and in good overall health, he says he's content to wait his turn.

SALK: We're going to be somewhere down the line as far as I'm concerned. It's fine with me. I think it's really important to prioritize the limited supply of vaccine.

MYRE: As for how long it will take the country to get back to normal...

SALK: I think that it's possible that by the end of 2021, it may be that we could be looking at getting back to a normal life.

MYRE: Until then, Dr. Peter Salk says he'll still be cautious.

SALK: I'm not ready to throw away the mask.

MYRE: Greg Myre, NPR News.

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