Jonas Salk Said that Patenting the Polio Vaccine Would be Like Patenting the Sun


As all of us around the world hold our breath, hoping for a headline announcing a scientific breakthrough in the battle against the novel coronavirus, this seems like a good time to remember a footnote in polio vaccine research: Jonas Salk did not patent the vaccine.

Edward R. Murrow, a noted 20th-century broadcast journalist, interviewed Dr. Jonas Salk who is credited with developing one of the first successful polio vaccines. Murrow asked Salk who owned the patent on the polio vaccine? Salk’s reply: “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”1

The polio epidemic was devastating for its victims. According to the CDC, in the early 1950s, before polio vaccines were developed, the virus caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis annually in the US.2 The historic image above shows health care providers with a patient in an iron lung (a predecessor to today’s ventilator), during a 1960 polio outbreak in Rhode Island. As the CDC Public Health Image Library describes it, “the iron lung encased the thoracic cavity externally in an airtight chamber. The chamber was used to create a negative pressure around the thoracic cavity, thereby, causing air to rush into the lungs to equalize intrathoracic pressure.” Photo courtesy, CDC.

You can see Murrow pose the question to Salk in the video below.

In contrast to Salk’s sensibility in the 1950s, a recent article in the National Law Review describes the current global patent race surrounding a search for a coronavirus vaccine: “As COVID-19 is causing chaos around the globe, the world’s largest economies are competing to be the first to find a cure to this new pandemic and taking measures to ensure that their citizens will have access to any vaccines or treatments once available.  COVID-19 has introduced a whole new global arms race–the race to own patent rights to a COVID-19 vaccine.” 3

While European leaders have stated they would assure any vaccines developed in European-based labs would be broadly licensed for wide access, the National Law Review article makes this alarming observation, “In contrast, the United States and China have been engaged in an escalating trade war since 2018 surrounding China’s lack of enforcement of intellectual property rights of non-Chinese citizens and both nations have responded to the coronavirus pandemic with strong nationalist sentiments.  Experts thus warn that if either the United States or China is first to develop and patent a vaccine, access to the vaccine could be used as political leverage against the other.” 3

Back in the mid-1990s, researchers from the VA Palo Alto Health Care System warned of the dangers inherent in science marketing: “If scientists had to pay a royalty fee to Watson and Crick for each use that they made of the knowledge about the structure of DNA, less biomedical research would be done.”4 While they made a good point, money remains at the heart of the issue. Scientific research is very expensive. Salk’s polio research was funded by foundation grants and his faculty appointment at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School.1 The real old-timers around today will remember “March of Dimes” collection cards at cashier counters in stores across the US, making it easy for people to contribute pocket change toward polio research.

Research funding is much more complicated today and researchers are always chasing the money. A coronavirus research group at the University of Saskatchewan has been hard at work on a vaccine for decades. So far, they have found success with vaccines for cattle and pigs. In an interview with the CBC, lead researchers with the group said they had found promising candidates for a Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) vaccine for humans in the early 2000s. However, after the SARS outbreak subsided, work was no longer a priority for Big Pharma or government funding agencies. That is changing quickly as the Canadian government just gave the lab a grant for $23M to work on a vaccine for COVID-19. 5

Reflecting on that National Review Article, author Rebeca Harasimowicz, reminds us that “political conflicts should never threaten public access to essential medicines and treatments.” 3 There are many people expressing hope that somehow, as we feel more removed from each other as never before, somehow the coronavirus pandemic might bring humanity closer together.

There are 10 countries participating in a COVID-19 research network that the WHO has dubbed the “Solidarity Response Fund.” As of March 25th, over 200,000 individuals had contributed more than pocket change to the fund operating with this focus:

“The greatest need right now is to help ensure all countries are prepared, especially those with the weakest health systems. Donations support WHO’s work to track and understand the spread of the virus; to ensure patients get the care they need and frontline workers get essential supplies and information; and to accelerate efforts to develop vaccines, tests, and treatments.” 6

The US and China were not among the ten participating Solidarity countries… Somehow, we just thought this was a good time to share Jonas Salk’s sentiment. Oh, and a link to Solidarity. 

-R.A. Kroft


1Smith, Jane S. Preface to Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk Vaccine. New York: Morrow, 1990.

2US Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Polio Elimination in the United States. Last Reviewed 25 October 2019.

3Harasimowicz Rebeca. The Global Patent Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine. National Law Review. 24 March 2020.

4Garber, Alan M. and Romer, Paul M. “Evaluating the Federal Role in Financing Health-related Research.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U.S.A. 93 (1996): 12717–24.

5Anderson Scott. How a Lab in Sask. That Focuses on Animals became Canada’s $23M Hope for a COVID-19 Vaccine. CBC News. 25 March 2020.

6WHO & United Nations Foundation. COVID-19 Response Fund.

Video: Global Citizen: Could You Patent the Sun?

R.A. Kroft writes about her day-to-day journey in living a smaller, more sustainable life and other topics that interest her.

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