US and World Politics

Polio, COVID-19, and Socialism

By Louis Proyect

In 1952, when I was very young, fear gripped my little village in the Catskills and across the USA as well. Sixty thousand children were stricken with the polio virus that year, leaving 3,000 dead and thousands more paralyzed. Some children were kept alive in an iron lung that functioned like the modern-day ventilator but that kept them confined to a virtual living coffin.

Summer was called “polio season.” In Woodridge, we had Kaplan’s Lake, a pond really, that local kids swam in. I went there mainly to wade near the beach. One summer our parents told us that it was being shut down because of the polio epidemic. We were also warned about sitting too close to each other in movie theaters, a real problem when the latest Martin and Lewis movie had kids lined up around the block to buy a ticket at the Lyceum Theater in Woodridge.

FDR was probably the most well-known polio victim in the USA but many others had the illness, including Neil Young and Francis Ford Coppola who had milder cases. Born in 1950, Patrick Cockburn came down with polio when he was six. He wrote a book about his experience titled The Broken Boy in 2005. In an NPR interview that year, the host told him: “You’ve been left with a limp, a severe limp. But you interviewed other survivors who were really much worse off.” Cockburn replied:

“Yes, many of them. One man who became a businessman had to learn to sign his name using his teeth—with a pen stuck in his teeth and a special apparatus. Many others were—had their back affected, their lungs affected, their legs affected. But many people fought back. I mean, I met one man who was a farmer who was frightened that when he went home, because he was so badly crippled, that people wouldn’t accept him. But actually, his family—and Irish families are very strong—re-adapted the farm so he could operate the farm machinery, so he could be a working farmer. And many other people fought back against extraordinary odds.”

For many doctors, the goal of developing a vaccine to prevent polio became paramount. FDR founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938 and promoted the March of Dimes for polio research. When Harry Truman became president, he committed to a war on polio using language redolent of the ’30s New Deal:

“The fight against infantile paralysis cannot be a local war. It must be nationwide. It must be total war in every city, town and village throughout the land. For only with a united front can we ever hope to win any war.”

Two research doctors, New York Jews, were instrumental in developing a vaccine. Neither one of them saw this as a way of getting rich. Their goal was only to save the lives of children.

Born in New York City in 1914, Jonas Salk developed a vaccine based on dead polio viruses in 1955. Backing for his project was universal, with 100 million contributors to the March of Dimes, and seven million volunteers going around with the iconic collection bank.

Salk could have made millions by patenting the vaccine but he preferred to see it made as widely available as possible. When he went on Edward R. Murrow’s popular “Person to Person” show, the host asked him who owned the patent. Salk replied, “Well, the people I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” (Had it been patented, it would be worth $7 billion.)

Salk’s politics

As it happens, Salk graduated from CCNY, a hotbed of radicalism in the 1930s. It should come as no surprise that J. Edgar Hoover had his number. Five years before he came out with the vaccine, he was the subject of an FBI investigation. Writing to Dillon Anderson, a top aide to Eisenhower, Hoover recapitulated his transgressions:

  • Three unnamed associates of Salk, professors at U-M, said that during World War II Salk contributed to war relief for the Soviet Union and was “outspoken” in his praise for that country. The associates said Salk praised the country’s technical advances, while his wife, Donna, was even more outspoken in her praise for all aspects of Soviet life, Hoover wrote.
  • One of Salk’s professional associates at U-M in the 1940s said that Salk was “far left of center.” Another associate noted that a liberal organization for which Salk served as treasurer in 1946 became “leftist” under Salk’s leadership.
  • Salk and his wife registered to vote for the American Labor Party in the early 1940s, the letter says. According to an informant, the Communist Party emerged as a controlling force of the ALP within areas of New York City during that time.
  • An informant advised that Salk’s brother, Lee, was a member of the Communist Party in Ann Arbor in 1948.
  • According to an informant, Hoover said, Salk’s name appeared on the mailing list of the New York Conference for Inalienable Rights in 1941. The group was cited as a Communist front by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Born Albert Saperstein in Bialystok, Poland in 1906, Albert Sabin received a medical degree from NYU, just as Salk did. Unlike Salk, Sabin’s goal was to develop a vaccine based on weakened polio virus. Both vaccines worked, with Sabin’s having the advantage of being able to be taken orally and longer-lasting.

Defying Cold War hysteria, Sabin worked closely with Soviet bloc doctors and scientists, thus earning him the reputation of working on a “communist vaccine.” In an article titled “Vaccination and the communist state: polio in Eastern Europe,” Dora Vargha concludes that the communist states were capable of “doing good things” as Bernie Sanders has said:

“Both East and West shared the perception of what the communist state was and its ideal role in polio prevention. Following the appearance and successful application of live poliovirus vaccines, Eastern European states saw themselves as particularly suited to achieve effectiveness in curbing—and eradicating—polio through their part in vaccine development and its distribution. The West, while not endorsing such political regimes ideologically, agreed. Indeed, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland became pioneers in introducing, testing and applying live poliovirus vaccines on a mass scale, while their Eastern European peers were quick to follow in mass vaccination.

“From a broader geopolitical perspective, polio raised uncomfortable questions about the positive side of communist regimes (i.e., effective epidemic control) and in a short time came to symbolize ‘neutral’ science that broke the barriers between East and West. The top-down organization of vaccine trial organization and immunization, which was, at the time, seen as particularly communist and Eastern European, also came to be seen as the most effective way to eradicate polio on a global scale.”

Sabin continued reaching out to demonized post-capitalist societies long after this. In a 2014 article titled “Epidemics and Opportunities for U.S.-Cuba Collaboration,” Marguerite Jiménez described his internationalist outlook:

“Several years after his collaborative breakthrough with the Soviet Union, Sabin set his sights on a much smaller Communist collaborator, one that was much closer to home. Sabin had traveled to Cuba multiples times prior to the Cuban revolution in 1959, however he had been unable to return since the early 1950s. Despite receiving multiple invitations from public health officials on the island during the early 1960s, the escalation of hostilities between the United States and Cuba made such a high-profile visit by a famous U.S. scientist all but impossible.

“Sabin’s enthusiastic pursuit of collaborative opportunities with the Soviet Union during the 1950s foreshadowed his efforts in Cuba to overcome political obstacles and diplomatic melodrama. Accordingly, at the end of 1965 when the Department of State announced an easing of restrictions on travel to Communist nations by certain categories of professionals, Sabin quickly seized the opportunity. The Department of State reported that the relaxation had been in response to the ‘urging of the medical community,’ and had been done for reasons of ‘humanity’ to promote greater international cooperation in combating diseases. While medical research justified the humanitarian nature of the move, the New York Times reported, ‘The hope in official circles was that the medical scientists could open the door to closer cooperation in other scientific areas.’ Sabin immediately sent copies of the announcement to colleagues in Cuba and within twenty-four hours he received an invitation through Cuba’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations.

“Finally, after almost two years of planning, Sabin arrived in Havana on December 4, 1967. While in Cuba, he had the opportunity to visit and meet with people in a wide range of scientific and medical institutions, as well as hospitals, polyclinics, and research facilities. While other elements of his trip became public thanks to a handful of newspaper articles on the subject published in both the United States and Cuba, what is not commonly known is that during his trip, Sabin met with Antonio Nuñez Jiménez, a prominent young leader within Fidel Castro’s regime and the president of the Academy of Sciences of Cuba. Sabin described Jiménez as a ‘pistol packing’ and ‘very pleasant’ person.”

Yesterday, I was reminded of Salk and Sabin after reading a report from the Sunnybrook Research Institute, a hospital associated the University of Toronto. Titled “Research team has isolated the COVID-19 virus,” it revealed that Dr. Robert Kozak, Dr. Samira Mubareka, Dr. Arinjay Banerjee had isolated severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the agent responsible for the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19.

That information would be critical to developing a vaccine. In describing their discovery, Arinjay Banerjee sounded very much in the Salk/Sabin tradition: “Now that we have isolated the SARS-CoV-2 virus, we can share this with other researchers and continue this teamwork. The more viruses that are made available in this way, the more we can learn, collaborate and share.”

Collaborate and share. That’s not only necessary for overcoming COVID-19 but in saving the world from capitalist destruction.

Farhad Manjoo, one of the only readable New York Times op-ed columnists, was onto something when he wrote that “everyone’s a socialist in a pandemic.” He wrote:

“There may be a silver lining here: What if the virus forces Americans and their elected representatives to recognize the strength of a collectivist ethos? The coronavirus, in fact, offers something like a preview of many of the threats we might face from the worst effects of climate change. Because the virus is coldly indiscriminate and nearly inescapable, it leaves us all, rich and poor, in the same boat: The only way any of us is truly protected is if the least among us is protected.”


The Unrepentant Marxist, March 14, 2020