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Jack Brubaker

Optimists predict a vaccine to combat COVID-19 could be developed by next year. Realists say it has been rare for successful vaccine development to take less than five years.

The Scribbler hopes the optimists are correct, but while we are waiting — washing our hands, wearing our masks, wiggling our toes — let’s take a look at the local history of one of the most significant vaccines ever created. Smallpox vaccine was made in large quantities for the first time in Marietta in the late 19th century.

Discovered by Edward Jenner, a British doctor, in the late 18th century, smallpox vaccine still was not commercially available in the United States a century later. People were still dying or being scarred for life. Dr. H.M. Alexander, a Marietta physician, decided to change that.

Alexander leased a heifer from a local farmer. He applied the smallpox virus to the heifer. Then he used the vaccine obtained from the heifer to vaccinate his patients.

Alexander produced his vaccine in a renovated chicken house next to his office at 299 W. Market St., Marietta. Soon he purchased a farm at Wasp and Biddle streets and expanded production. He called his operation the Lancaster County Vaccine Farm. Within a few years, 500 heifers were supplying vaccine there.

Following Alexander's death and a number of expansions, auctions and mergers, Wyeth Laboratories, later called Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, took over the vaccine farm site. Wyeth merged with Ayerst Laboratories in 1987. During most of this time, the Marietta plant produced and maintained the largest supply of smallpox vaccine on earth.

Largely because of the efforts of Alexander and his successors in producing mass quantities of vaccine, the World Health Organization declared smallpox eradicated in 1979. It was the first disease ever entirely wiped out.

This was not because nobody tried to produce smallpox vaccine in large amounts before Alexander and Wyeth Labs. It was because producing and preserving vaccine — any vaccine — especially in large quantities, is difficult and often ineffective.

Four decades ago, the Scribbler interviewed the late John H. Brown, of Marietta, retired head of Wyeth Labs. When WHO called for help to kill smallpox worldwide, Brown led Wyeth’s response.

“We put more effort into smallpox vaccine than anyone else,” Brown said in a 1979 interview. Wyeth developed a freeze-dried vaccine that would last longer, especially in tropical countries, and could be used in a jet gun to inoculate many people quickly.

More important, Brown said, Wyeth created a bifurcated (two-tined) needle. When dipped into vaccine, the tines captured sufficient substance between them to ensure a vaccination would succeed.

Meanwhile, Wyeth was successfully producing other pharmaceuticals. One product that did not make money was influenza vaccine. After two decades of production, Wyeth stopped making flu shots in 2004.

Wyeth Pharmaceuticals closed that year. GlaxoSmithKline quickly revived the business, revitalized the site and began manufacturing vaccines for various diseases, including hepatitis A and diphtheria. It also began producing vaccine adjuvants.

Adjuvants increase a person’s immune response and so make vaccines stronger and longer lasting. GlaxoSmithKline is now working with several vaccine producers in hopes an adjuvanted COVID-19 vaccine can be made available “by the second half of 2021,” according to the company’s website.

Whether GlaxoSmithKline’s collaborative effort helps resolve this dreadful situation, the company can trace its vaccine-related history to the work of a small-town doctor in a Marietta chicken house nearly 140 years ago.

— Jack Brubaker, retired from the LNP staff, writes “The Scribbler” column every Wednesday. He welcomes comments and contributions at