Opinion | If you do a Google search on the topic of how vaccines are made, the first hit you may get is a page from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) titled “Making Vaccines: How Are Vaccines Made?” On it is a video by pediatrician Paul Offit, MD that, at first, gives the sense that he is going to go into some detail about the manufacturing process. Dr. Offit starts out… “One thing that some parents wonder about is how does one make vaccines?” But it quickly becomes clear that Dr. Offit’s intent is merely to provide an ultra brief and sanitized introduction to the procedure.1 2
“First, one way to make a vaccine is that you take a virus and you weaken it. Weaken it so that it can reproduce itself enough to induce an immune response, but not enough to cause disease. And that’s the way that the measles vaccine is made,” Dr. Offit explains. He says that that’s also the way the mumps, chickenpox, rubella and rotavirus vaccines are made.1 2
That’s it, one step? You take a virus and weaken it and, voilà, you have a vaccine?
Dr. Offit goes on to explain the way the tetanus and diphtheria vaccines are made. He says, “Another way that you can make a vaccine is you can take a bacteria that normally makes a toxin, like tetanus, or diphtheria. And so those bacterial infections are more intoxications, frankly, than they are infections. So you take the toxin made by those bacteria, and you kill it with a chemical. And then that becomes your vaccine.”1 2
That’s all? You take the bacterial toxin and you kill it and then, suddenly, a vaccine appears?
Dr. Offit continues…
Another way you can make a vaccine is you can take a bacteria, like the bacteria that causes a meningococcal infection, pneumococcal infections, another infections caused by Haemophilus influenzae type b. And you take this complex sugar coating of that bacteria, called polysaccharide, link it to a harmless protein and then that becomes your vaccine.
So another way, yet and finally … the final way that one can make a vaccine is you can take a virus and instead of weakening it, you can kill it. And that’s the way that the polio vaccine is made. That’s the way the rabies vaccine is made. That’s the way the hepatitis A vaccine is made.
And one more, there’s one more way that you can make a vaccine, which is that you can take just a part of the virus. So you just take one protein from the virus that you know induces an antibody response that can completely neutralize the virus. And that then becomes your vaccine. And those single protein vaccines are the hepatitis B vaccine and the human papillomavirus vaccine.1 2
Dr. Offit’s explanations leave you thinking, “There must be more to it than that.”
In fact, there is.
Another of the initial hits you may get from your Google search is “How Vaccines Are Made” on website of The History of Vaccines. It offers a much more informed and comprehensive, five-step explanation of what goes into making a vaccine.3
The first step is the “generation of the antigen used to induce an immune response.” This step includes the “growth and harvesting of the pathogen itself (for later inactivation or isolation of a subunit) or generation of a recombinant protein (a protein made with DNA technology) derived from that pathogen. The page explains that recombinant proteins can be “manufactured in cultures of bacterial cells or yeast.” It explains that viruses are grown in “cell cultures” (sometimes derived from chicken embryos) and bacteria are grown in “devices using a growth medium developed to optimize the yield of the antigen while maintaining its integrity.”3
The second step is to “release the antigen from the cells and isolate from the material used in its growth.” The page notes that “proteins and other parts of the growth medium may still be present and must be removed in the next step” and that the “goal of this stage is to release as much virus and bacteria as possible.”3
The third step is the “purification of the antigen.” The page explains that for vaccines that are made from “recombinant proteins,” this may involve a method of separating materials called “chromatography” and ultrafiltration. It notes that “inactivation may occur.”3
The fourth step may involve the addition of an adjuvant, which is the “material that nonspecifically enhances immune responses.” Additionally, vaccines may also include “stabilizers to prolong shelf-life or preservatives to allow multi-dose vials to be used safely.”3
Finally, the fifth and last step “combines all components that make up the final vaccine and uniformly mixes them in a single vessel.” Then, the vaccine is poured into a “vial or syringe packages, sealed with sterile stoppers or plungers, and labeled for widespread distribution.”3
There are a lot more ingredients in vaccines other than lab-altered viruses and bacteria, including potentially toxic ingredients. All you have to do is take a look at the list of excipients included in U.S. vaccines published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).4
So why would a vaccine developer promoting mandatory use of vaccines like Dr. Offit offer such a simplistic explanation about the process of how vaccines are made? Could it be that he doesn’t want to tell people the whole truth because he is afraid they will start asking questions?
It reminds me of parents who answer their children’s question about where babies come from by telling them about the stork. It may work in the short term but fairy tales don’t hold up over time.
Note: This commentary provides referenced information and perspective on a topic related to vaccine science, policy, law or ethics being discussed in public forums and by U.S. lawmakers. The websites of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) provide information and perspective of federal agencies responsible for vaccine research, development, regulation and policymaking.
1 Making Vaccines: How Are Vaccines Made? Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia June 28, 2016.
2 Offit PA. What Are the Different Types of Vaccines? Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Aug. 11, 2015.
3 How Vaccines Are Made. HistoryOfVaccines.org.
4 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Excipients Included in U.S. Vaccines, by Vaccine. CDC.gov January 2019.