Click here for free access to our latest coronavirus/COVID-19 research, commentary, and news.

Support nonprofit science journalism

Science’s extensive COVID-19 coverage is free to all readers. To support our nonprofit science journalism, please make a tax-deductible gift today.

Retrospective: What Happened With Swine Flu in 1976

Infectious disease specialist Edwin D. Kilbourne, now 88 and retired, was at the center of the last swine flu scare in the U.S. In 1976, a swine flu strain swept through Fort Dix, a military base in New Jersey. The virus infected about 500 soldiers, though not all got sick; one died. Kilbourne, then at Mount Sinai Medical School in New York City, specialized in developing vaccines to specific flu strains and was quickly recruited to help combat a feared swine flu epidemic. Forty million Americans were subsequently vaccinated against the virus, and several hundred developed a neurological condition, Guillain-Barré syndrome, fanning controversy about whether such extensive vaccination was necessary. Kilbourne spoke with ScienceInsider from his home in Connecticut earlier today. Parts of the interview were edited for clarity.

Q&A after the jump.

Q: What are your memories of that time?

I’d been recombining, or resorting, influenza viruses for several years before that, to produce high-yielding influenza viruses [that could be developed into vaccines]. David Sencer, the director of the CDC who later had to resign [as a result of swine flu], was a friend of mine and put me on the advisory committee having to do with the Fort Dix situation. [Virus samples were] sent to me at my lab in Mount Sinai School of Medicine, where I was chair of microbiology. Within several weeks, we had a high-yielding virus [and] I had the vaccine virus made. … There was reason to be scared—we knew that a virus very similar to the swine flu had been present in 1918. That gave cause for great concern to those of us who knew something about the situation.

Q: You believed it was important to have this vaccine?

I believed it was important—this could have been the putative virus of 1918 for all we knew. [But] there were those violently opposed to the situation. I call it my 15 minutes of infamy. It got to be a bad word, swine flu. On the other hand, had we not had the vaccine and something had happened, who would be blamed? The entire medical profession.

Q: What about adverse reactions to the vaccine?

This was the largest field trial of a vaccine in history, carried out in 1976. There was no baseline for comparison of what is the normal occurrence of Guillain-Barré syndrome. People are arguing to this day whether [the vaccine] really had any effect on the incidence. There are a lot of things that cause Guillain-Barré.

Q: Were you criticized for developing the vaccine?

With cartoons, on news programs. … It was an interesting ride.

Q: If you were advising those who are tackling the current swine flu, what would you tell them?

The only thing I would have done differently in 1976, retrospectively, is to make the vaccine, promote the vaccine, but not give the vaccine until the last moment—but the problem with that is that you may be too late. By all means, find the prevalent strain, make a vaccine that can be used, and grow it in eggs, and then go with it. [But] I think it’s premature to do it [vaccinate] now.

Q: Did you continue working on swine flu after 1976?

Oh, sure. We used it in animal studies, it was used by people in other countries as a rapidly growing vaccine virus. It was an interesting virus.