The history of vaccine production and mass vaccination

However dubious the experiments and medical reasoning surrounding the use of vaccines, the ‘Authorities’ had decided, vaccines were to be the new wonder drugs. They heralded a new era of possibility with regard to preventative medicine; with the hope of producing further vaccines capable of eliminating illness and averting countless loss of life, counteracting the indiscriminate advance of infectious disease, and Jenner was to be the main publicist. Like Pasteur, his claim to fame lay in his ability to promote the practice of vaccination; his understanding of vaccines and disease prevention was however not his main forte, in practice he had many problems.


Administering cowpox microbes to an individual, in the form of a vaccine, was supposed to mimic the contraction of the natural disease ‘cowpox’, which would then create an immune response that would make the person immune to ‘smallpox’. In order to produce such a vaccine Jenner had to collect sufficient cowpox microbes, he therefore decided to manufacture this vaccine by extracting the pus from the skin eruptions of individuals with cowpox, often this pus was often referred to as ‘lymph’.


However, distinguishing the exact nature of the disease from which this lymph could be extracted, was much more difficult than it appeared; there were in fact different types of pox illnesses in humans that were clinically very similar to cowpox i.e. although these illnesses involved different microbes they looked the same and produced the same symptoms. In addition, there were similar pox illnesses that could in fact be contracted from different animals. Vaccines had to be massed produced, it was not possible to wait around for volunteers to turn up with what appeared to be cowpox, extracting lymph on an individual and ad hoc basis. The pustular extraction (lymph) used in the production of smallpox vaccines needed to be standardised in order to replicate its therapeutic effects and since different illnesses in different animals would contain different microbes it was imperative to find out which pox illness was the one similar to smallpox in humans.


Jenner having changed his ideas on at least two occasions eventually insisted that the true protective variety was derived only from a disease known as “the grease “—the matter being transferred from the horse to the teats of the cow by men milkers after they had been attending to diseased horses.


An inquiry by the Lancet in the year 1900 in to the “lymph” issued by thirteen establishments disclosed the fact that there was not one brand that was bacteriologically pure. In some there were hundreds of colonies of extraneous germs.


The Lancet of May 13, 1922, wrote: Abroad, in place of the rabbit, the ass or the mule is employed, and the resulting ass-pox or mule-pox is used as the exalted seed stock for the vaccination of calves. Such lymph is freely admitted to the United Kingdom for the purpose of sale, and no practitioner knows whether the lymph he employs is derived from smallpox, rabbit-pox, ass-pox or mule-pox.


Since Government lymph has been treated with glycerine, much of the official lymph must contain a certain amount of glycerine. What the remainder consists of no one can say. No microscopical examination can indicate which is the special germ (if there is one) of vaccine. One sample of lymph may be teeming with dangerous poisons; another may be almost innocuous and others contain no microbes at all. Dr. Kelsch, in a communication to the French Academy of Medicine (5 July 1909), told of his amazement to find typical vaccinal pustules on heifers inoculated with glycerine only.


No attempt at standardisation of vaccine lymph has ever been made or could ever be made. How much impurity a sample has gathered up on its way from a human being through a calf or a donkey or a mule or a rabbit, perhaps then through a child and back to a calf again (or nowadays through a sheep), no one pretends to know. No vaccinator can state with certainty the composition of a tube of “pure glycerinated lymph.” He is experimenting with a mixture that may be so dangerous as to cause death, but he knows nothing about it. The Therapeutic Substances Regulations make no attempt to define vaccine lymph. They say, in effect, that vaccine lymph is “vaccine lymph.


“The results of Jenner’s experiments were debated at length; clearly there were serious inadequacies in the production and standardisation of the vaccine, in addition there were few conclusive experiments able to satisfy the most basic scientific enquiry. However, the government, seemingly very attached to the possibility of this miracle form of protection, pushed forward with the production of the vaccine and the eventual passing of legislation making smallpox vaccination a legal requirement for all UK citizens. From 1867 evaders of vaccination were to be prosecuted.