From poliomyelitis to covid

How the USA and the USSR defeated poliomyelitis and what keeps countries away from joining efforts in the fight against Covid-19 nowadays

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The 24th of October is World Polio Day. In the middle of the 20th century this disease became a national disaster in many countries. It claimed thousands of lives, nearly 40% of the sick became disabled. The leading specialist of the Gamaleya Scientific Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology Fedor Lisitsyn said about how the ideological enemies- the USA and the USSR- were able to win a fight against poliomyelitis and why the world today turned out not to be ready to cooperate for a struggle against the coronavirus pandemic.

The 24th of October is World Polio Day. In the middle of the 20th century the scientists from the USA and the USSR by joint efforts were able to defeat this most dangerous disease. How could they manage to do it? The Cold War was raging, the ideological confrontation was at its height…

The main difference between those times and the modern ones is that the financial circles have a lesser financial interest. At those times, every researcher understood that his discovery would be personally recognized for him. All these people were known by name. And the inventor's aim was not to establish a startup, go public and be bought by a large pharmaceutical company, but to get a teaching position at a famous university or work in a large clinic.


The Anglo-Saxon model of science of those years was a university science: a scientist had to teach at a college or university. At the Soviet Union-to get a laboratory or a place at the institute. There was no such race for money. At that time capitalist science was not so materially oriented.

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All the spy hysteria subsided where joint works, recognized by both sides, appeared. Research on polio was "blessed" by a commission set up at the initiative of President Roosevelt. We have no proof that Stalin and Roosevelt in Yalta or Tehran talked about polio. But it happened somehow that the leaders of both countries knew about this research and did not impede it. Apparently, it was an order not to consider this as a spying operation.

In the case of virology, we had incredible luck: at the origins of the Soviet virology stood Dmitry Ivanovsky, who discovered the first tobacco mosaic virus.

And now, imagine, then-Nobel laureate Wendell Stanley came to the Soviet Union, started searching for those people who had worked with Ivanovsky and - found them! And in the American press, he began to write in a laudatory vein about the level of the development of the Soviet virology. Wendell Stanley was a man of the highest moral character and conscience in science, a standard of justice and accuracy of assessment.

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The atmosphere was very difficult but as soon as there was a case for international cooperation, exchange of opinions, scientific literature, suspicion ended. The cooperation existed in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, the French came to the Soviet Union. Moreover, they were even allowed into closed scientific centers.

Today at the time of the pandemic Russia suggests starting an international cooperation in a fight against Covid-19. But there is still no response. What can this lead to?

When in 1991 the Soviet Union was dissolved, we, as a bitter joke, began to build capitalism as it was imagined by the Soviet propaganda, with its most impartial features, and the Americans began to build socialism, as the American Sovietologists imagined it, with all its absurdity and the exaggerations.

And now they have our Soviet socialism in a paranoid form – there are enemies everywhere, and Russian scientists are agents of the Kremlin and are interested in destabilizing Western research. So, you should not demand logic from propaganda.

From the outside the situation looks terrible. The coronavirus pandemic has been lasting for almost a year, and in the United States, the government has not established a single coordination center for coronavirus research yet. In China, such a coordination center was established immediately. They have three types of vaccine, which are being made within a framework of a nationwide project. There is also an initiative of the private Chinese firms apart from this project, and they interact with each other, there is a single treatment protocol.

-So, in the 20th century, the USSR and the USA were able to temporarily bury the ax of the Cold War for the sake of fighting polio. And today, in the XXI century, will we not be able to find a common language? Is it really impossible to establish cooperation between countries in the fight against epidemics, as it was in the last century?

- Humanity as a whole has become greedier, too fixated on money. A coin is a measure of everything, and first of all, of success. As a result, any event - a fire in Australia, a coronavirus epidemic or a shortage of fish in the ocean - results in a question: "What can I get from this?" And today the problems should be divided into those that need to be solved in order to survive, and the problems on which we can earn. There is no such division now.


Interviewed by Oleg Osipov


Translated by Julia Belasheva