When the first vaccines for COVID-19 were developed, many were skeptical about their effectiveness and possible risks because it was created rather quickly. However, the virus was identified in December 2019, and after a year, Pfizer’s vaccine received its emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. Usually, vaccines take around 10 to 15 years to develop, having to go through different phases of testing and clinical trials before administering to the public. Before COVID-19, the fastest vaccine to create was for mumps, which took four years. However, there are some instances when the world does not have the luxury of time, and vaccines should be rushed. The same thing happened during World War II when the war couldn’t just wait.

War Within the War

Whenever we think of war, it is not just always about the guns and explosives, the soldiers in uniform marching and gallantry fighting for their beliefs. It’s also weeks of no proper bath or even brushing teeth, murky water, vermin-infested trenches, and open wounds. In addition, people are traveling and more likely carrying or catching germs and viruses that they don’t have immunity against. The diseases could grow and spread in an area, and people could not stop the spread.

Caskets of American soldiers in Cuba | HSL University of Virginia. (pbs.org)

During the Spanish-American War, typhoid fever became the major killer of American soldiers, contributing to 82% of the sick soldiers, with a 7.7 mortality rate. During the American Civil war, two-thirds of the 750,000 recorded military death was from diseases. At that time, diseases like smallpox, citrus, fresh vegetable scurvy, and malaria were treated by attempting to alleviate the symptoms instead of getting to the root cause. The number improved in World War I, when sanitation practices improved a bit, although the Spanish flu still killed between 20 and 40 million people.

Creating the Commission

When World War II broke out, the US government realized that diseases were as a threat as the enemies to their troops. To prevent past mistakes, they partnered with academics and industries to develop vaccines that would make the soldiers immune to diseases before they were sent off to fight. This was to avoid soldiers from having to leave due to sickness. While the partnership was good, the scientists realized they were being held back by the organization’s constraints, limiting them from coming up with the much-needed shots for the troops.

Spanish Influenza sign at Navy Yard in 1918. (US. Navy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

To make things easier, the US Army created a commission that would develop a vaccine to protect the troops in case of a pandemic. In addition, leading specialists from different institutions like universities, hospitals, public health laboratories, and private organizations all worked together for research and development to ensure they could prevent spreading diseases to the military.

Soon, the experts were already working on vaccines not only for syphilis, typhus, and dysentery but also for bacterial meningitis, bacterial pneumonia, measles, mumps, neurotropic diseases, tropical diseases, and acute respiratory diseases. The military commission also encouraged and enabled them to pick up the research.

Speeding Things Up

Virologist Thomas Francis Jr. led the commission to develop a flu vaccine that the FDA approved in less than two years. They also developed operations-specific vaccines, like the vaccine for botulism for the Normandy Invasion when a faulty intelligence that the Nazi bombs were laced with botulinum. Japanese encephalitis immunity was also administered before the troops were sent out for an invasion of Japan.

The FDA did not approve some vaccines because they were developed hastily but still proved effective for specific operations. In addition, the cooperative approach made it easy for the military to extract information from the entities involved.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a series of legal, economic, and political changes ended the cooperation. Today, the military researchers are involved in developing treatments for malaria and HIV infections like in the US military’s HIV Research Program (MHRP) at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

While en route to Pearl Harbor in 1943, the crew of carrier HMS Victorious was operating with the USS Saratoga.

Saw the efficiency of the USN in the treatment and concern for the men that served. A case of diphtheria aboard Victorious exhausted the supplies of serum on the ship and her escorts; radio silence was broken because of the fear of an epidemic among the crew. A B-24 Liberator dropped a waterproof case of serum in front of the destroyer screen, and the man was saved. The ship was 300 miles away from the closest land, and the man would surely have perished before the ship had made a port.