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The Vaccine Race: Science, Politics, and the Human Costs of Defeating Disease

3.96  ·  Rating details ·  674 ratings  ·  106 reviews
Until the late 1960s, tens of thousands of American children suffered crippling birth defects if their mothers had been exposed to rubella, popularly known as German measles, while pregnant; there was no vaccine and little understanding of how the disease devastated fetuses. In June 1962, a young biologist in Philadelphia, using tissue extracted from an aborted fetus from ...more
Hardcover, 436 pages
Published February 7th 2017 by Viking
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Kara Babcock
This is what I knew about vaccines prior to reading this book:

* Vaccines work by delivering a killed or live, but weakened, version of a virus into the body, stimulating the body’s immune system into producing antibodies without actually causing an infection.
* Edward Jenner gets a lot of credit for using cowpox to vaccinate against smallpox, though he wasn’t the first to think about this.
* Vaccines are responsible for preventing death, disability, and disfigurement due to such diseases as sma
I had hoped this would be a comparable read to Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies, which are two of my absolute favorite books and were also among the first to turn me on to medical-themed literature. Instead, I found myself skimming through the book’s dense scientific and historical information: like Mukherjee’s other book, The Gene, which made last year’s Wellcome shortlist, The Vaccine Race is overstuffed with a mixture ...more
Apr 22, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: books-read-2018
Around 60 years ago it was still possible for pregnant mothers exposed to German Measles or rubella, to have children that were born with crippling birth defects. No one really knew how the virus affected the unborn child, nor did they know the best way to fight against this disease. It was understood how you could make a vaccine to combat the virus that caused this illness and others like chicken pox, rabies, and polio, but early attempts with animal cell-based vaccines caused as many problems ...more
Just had to DNF this as it was too slow going. Not necessarily a bad book, just very dense and I think aimed at someone who has prior knowledge or is passionate to learn about viruses, rather than a casual reader.
Feb 18, 2017 added it
Disclaimer: I got an advance proof from Viking through a Goodreads giveaway.
The title snagged my attention because I am a science geek; but also at the thought of the story of the human cost. And the book did not disappoint. I will say the one bad thing right up front. The story jumped around a lot, making it sometimes hard to follow. But the author had so many people, places, and times to cover that I don't know that she could have avoided that in telling such a sweep of science and modern hist
Mrs. Europaea
Feb 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Mind blowing. What Wadman reveals in The Vaccine Race will have you questioning your own ethics and morals. While Wadman discusses the very fascinating history of vaccines, she also reveals the unregulated, exploitative experiments on orphans, prisons, newborns, and intellectually disabled children that were tested on and/or harmed irrevocably in the process creating many vaccines.

Wadman executes a neutral balance of the pros and cons in the history of vaccines, discussing the significant i
Feb 18, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book chronicles the life of Dr Leonard Hayflick, who rose from humble beginnings as a poor Jewish kid from Southwest Philadelphia to become the inventor of the first human diploid cell line, and to determine that these and other normal human cells can only divide a limited number of times before they die, which later became known as the Hayflick limit. One cell line, WI-38, created while he was a staff member of the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, became the host for viruses used to creat ...more
Matt Fitz
“The silent pressure for conformity exists whenever grants and contracts for research are under the direct control of governments; . . . then . . . no science is immune to the infection of politics and the corruption of power. —Jacob Bronowski, Polish-British mathematician and science writer, 1971”

That's a quote from this book that stood out. My interest in vaccines stems primarly from raising an autistic child in the world of anti-vaxxers. Of course, the middle of a pandemic such as COVID is pr
Oct 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this, and I read it at a very opportune moment — at exactly the same time as I had my lab skills residential school in Milton Keynes. The techniques described were mostly not the same, but there was some crossover, and it was great to think about how I might one day contribute to the same science, if I go that route. My only quibbles with this book were with the sometimes unfocused feel; there’s a lot of scientists which it tracks quite closely, and sometimes I wondered how rele ...more
Apr 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
This was a very interesting book. To be clear, this is much more of a science book than a political book, but the science speaks for itself. I read "Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" several years ago, and this book has some similar themes regarding cell lines (although not as dramatic). I learned a lot about how vaccines were developed from reading this book. I did not realize how naive I was! When I was pregnant it was determined that I would need a Rubella booster, but no one explained to me ...more
Jan 09, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2018, medical, non-fiction
It's interesting to learn about the innumerable intricacies and machinations come into play in order to generate something that is truly paradigm-changing. When people discuss going back to a time before agriculture (I'm looking at you, Derek Jensen) two of the major things that would prevent me from wanting to do so are antibiotics and vaccinations. See, I am very happy to live in a time where the only needless childhood illness that I suffered from was the Chicken Pox, and I was among the last ...more
Feb 28, 2017 rated it it was ok
Somewhat mistitled, this book is actually about one of my favorite scientific techniques, cell culture, and one scientist who generated a valuable cell line that was subsequently used in creating some of vaccines. The author has a specific viewpoint on the topic, which colors the story is a rather negative light, not unlike Skloot's book on Henrietta Lacks. Since I am much more neutral on the subject, I was not very impressed by the book. I thought the book relied on some dubious sources (e.g., ...more
Feisty Harriet
Jun 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
This was fascinating, the history of vaccine research and trial-and-error, the beginnings of fetal tissue research (which I had zero idea about and am SO fascinated by), abortion, and a whole pile of questions about medical ethics. This is perhaps a little more dense than, say, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (which I loved, btw), but it was a topic I knew very little about and really appreciated and am fascinated by Wadman's introduction.
Pam Walter
Jul 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Some interest or knowledge of biology or microbiology is helpful
Once upon a time scientific research was done for the well-being of mankind . Somehow during the second half of the 20th century the motivation of research scientists appears to have changed. It became much a cut-throat business. Meredith Wadman's book describes how research scientists variably supported each other, assisted each other, blocked each other, tripped each other and stole each other's ideas.

Much of the focus is on Leonard Hayflick and his development of a growth medium cells derive
Feb 13, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: science, non-fiction
This book centered around Hayflick, and his cells, although it did a good job of portraying how devastating diseases such as Rubella and Polio used to be. Wadman also spends considerable time on the shift from "doing science for the good of mankind" to the rise of the big pharma companies from today.

Although Wadman tries to bring in plenty of human interest by telling the stories of people affected by diseases (as well as the by the vaccines), I found the book a little dry. I saw it was compared
Laura Lacey
Jul 26, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: netgalley
This is a great non-fiction book spanning the history of the vaccine. It covers the science, the politics, the human drama and the morality.

Wadman jumped around just a little to much for me. I feel the subject matter she decided to tackle was really just too much for a single book. A little less detail (or a little more editing!) in places would have really helped this book. Perhaps an abridged version for the passingly interested? For example I didn't much care about the family life of some of
Nov 09, 2017 rated it liked it

“Rubella does not seem to invoke the fascination of thalidomide despite the fact that in a single epidemic in the United States it caused more birth defects in one year than thalidomide did during its entire time on the world market.”

Wadman charts the story of Leonard Hayflick, from his humble beginnings in Philadelphia to his time at Stanford at the other end of the country, and follows his battles, discoveries and controversies along the way. In a way the real story here begins with the abort
Ormarie Vazquez
Mar 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I have not enjoyed a book alinvolving science as much as this one in a long time. The history of vaccine making is very interesting, and the author is able to write it like a story, while still throwing in scientific concepts for non-scientists. It was so interesting to learn how research in a lab was done without all the technological advances we have nowadays, and sad to see how clinical trials were conducted.
Aug 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biology-genetics
Much of the work done in tissue culture by the biologists discussed in the book was the exact sort of work I did working in a clinical virology laboratory for ten years. Also, I had rubella (as a toddler and not prenatally - I was too young for the vaccine). So, double whammy there. Pretty fascinating stuff, and scary to think what it took to develop polio and rubella vaccines in the first place.

I was much less interested in the parts involving litigation and such.
Blaine Morrow
Oct 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
Wadman reveals more than the reader probably wants or needs to know about how the most commonly used vaccines today (rubella, rabies, chickenpox, mumps, etc.) were developed and regulated. Though it's a slog to get through, it's fascinating - particularly so as it considers the life and work of Leonard Hayflick, who championed the use of human cells still being used today.
Aug 31, 2020 rated it really liked it
A bit verbose, but it is worthwhile persevering. An exceptionally interesting book, not just for the science but also the politics and ethics of early vaccine development.
Russell Atkinson
Mar 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
This nonfiction account of the spectacular and life-saving advances in vaccine development over the last fifty or so years is in some ways reminiscent of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson. Until you see it set out before you, it is difficult to imagine or remember how much important history has passed in this field in just the last few decades.

The book begins and ends with Leonard Hayflick, a cell biologist credited with
Alexanda Milne
Apr 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
Read my other book reviews at

There’s nothing like sitting in a beer garden on a glorious summery day, sipping cider and panic reading a book about the journey to mass produced vaccines. Right?

I set myself the challenge to finish all the Wellcome Book prize shortlist books in a month and I probably shouldn’t have left this one to second to last because it’s pretty long and very in depth and the moment I started reading I was fascinated.

The Vaccine Race mainly follows the
Nazrul Buang
Feb 22, 2020 rated it liked it
The COVID-19 is currently on everyone's lips, and viruses have (once again) become a hot topic for discussion among communities. I want to learn more about viruses and vaccines in general (also fueled by the current global situation), so I turn to the one book that has gotten some positive reviews from book circles.

Author Meredith Wadman is a physician who specializes in reporting on issues dealing with biomedical research politics. As a physician, she has vested interest in exploring topics rel
A few statistics to start with;

In 1952 the USA was struck by a polio epidemic. In this single epidemic, within a single country, 58,000 people were infected, mostly children. 3,000 died and 21,000 were left with various degrees of paralysis.

In the early sixties, a rubella epidemic that swept the USA is estimated to have caused 30,000 stillbirths, and in addition, 20,000 cases of Congenital Rubella Syndrome, in which babies are born with (either singly or in any combination), blindness, deafness,
May 11, 2017 rated it liked it
This is a difficult book to describe in some ways, as it lumps together a few different stories that are related but sometimes only tangentially: it discusses the various competing vaccines for (especially) rubella, the development and ownership of human cell lines that could be used for vaccine-making, and the various political battles in the field of vaccine research.

It's an interesting set of subjects, but the writing here is plodding. Wadman will never miss an opportunity to mention when an
May 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
There are things that as a young adult now, I just take for granted. The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman reminded me of just how different life used to be. This work is even more relevant today, as currently in Minnesota, the state is in the the midst of the largest measles outbreak in years due to the efforts of anti-vaccination advocates.

I really recommend this book to understand the process of vaccine development. I came away from this novel with a new appreciation of all the work and controv
Nov 09, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A truly well done telling of a somewhat disturbing story. One should bear carefully in mind that Mrs. "X," the mother of the aborted child that led to all this 'progress' was never informed that the remains of her offspring were used this way. And as we listened (we were traveling together so got to share the experience) we kept coming around to how similar the practices of our medical researchers paralleled in so many respects those of the Third Reich, without the swastikas, of course.

Still, an
May 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
An interesting non-fiction book tracing the development of several vaccines (mainly rabies, polio, and rubella) in the 60s through the 80s.

One main focus of this book is the development of the WI-38 cells by Leonard Haflick - the first non-cancerous, self-replicating, line of clean human cells that allowed vaccines to be developed using human cells instead of potentially disease ridden monkey cells. The discussion on this line of cells actually branches off into non-vaccine related science, par
May 05, 2017 rated it it was ok
A great read for science buffs interested in the history of vaccines, but can be a bit of a slow read.

While the content was great and some of the stories interesting, I couldn't bear to give it any higher of a rating because of just how dense the writing was. The beginning lures you in, and you think this will be a historical book that will keep you tethered with its prose. Instead, it's more a textbook with details on the history of vaccines, their uses, and the ongoing controversy surrounding
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