The development of vaccines to protect against viral disease is one of the hallmarks of modern medicine. The first vaccine was produced by Edward Jenner in 1796 in an attempt to provide protection against smallpox. Jenner noticed that milkmaids who had contracted cowpox, a relatively innocuous infection, seemed to be resistant to smallpox, a disease of humans that regularly reached epidemic levels with extremely high mortality rates.

Jenner theorized (correctly) that cowpox, a disease of animals, was similar to smallpox. He concluded that the human reaction to an injection of cowpox virus would somehow teach the human body to respond to both viruses, without causing major illness or death. Today, smallpox is totally eradicated. Only two frozen samples of this virulent virus exist (one in the United States, the other in Russia), and as of mid-1995 there is serious scientific debate about whether to destroy the samples, or keep them for further laboratory study.

A virus is a small bit of RNA (Ribonucleic acid) and/or DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the material in all living cells that instructs the cell how to grow and reproduce. Viruses cannot reproduce by themselves, but only by taking over the nucleus of a host cell and instructing the cell to make additional viruses. When a virus successfully invades an organism, it takes over the cell growth process in the host.

Under ordinary circumstances, the human body responds to viral invasion in several different ways. Generalized immunity to a virus can be developed by the cells in the body that are targets of viral invasion. In this situation, viruses are prevented from gaining access to host cells. A more common protection is the body's ability to develop blood and lymph cells that destroy or limit the efficacy of the invading virus. Often, an infected human body will "leam" how to respond to a specific virus in the future, so that a single infection, especially from a relatively benign virus, usually teaches the body how to respond to additional invasions from the same virus. The common cold, for example, is caused by one of several hundred viruses. After recovering from a cold, most people are resistant to the particular virus that caused the particular cold, although similar cold viruses will still cause similar or identical symptoms. For some innocuous viruses, a person might even develop immunity without becoming visibly ill.

Virus Families

There are usually several variations or strains of any particular virus. Depending on the number of varieties, a biologist might group viruses as types or strains. Vaccines frequently are made from more than one group of related viruses; a preventive reaction to the multivalent vaccination will probably cause immunity to almost all of the group's variants, or at least to those variants which a person is likely to encounter. Choice of the specific members of the group to use in a vaccine are made with painstaking care and deliberation.

The Manufacturing

Manufacturing an anti-virus vaccine today is a complicated process even after the arduous

task of creating a potential vaccine in the laboratory. The change from manufacturing a potential vaccine in small quantities to manufacturing gallons of safe vaccine in a production situation is dramatic, and simple laboratory procedure may not be amenable to a "scale up" situation.

The Seed

Growing the virus


Selecting the strain

The eventual vaccine will be either made of attenuated (weakened) virus, or a killed virus. The choice of one or the other depends on a number of factors including the efficacy of the resulting vaccine, and its secondary effects. Ru vaccine, which is developed almost every year in response to new variants of the causative virus, is always an attenuated vaccine. The virulence of a virus can dictate the choice; rabies vaccine, for example, is always a killed vaccine.

Quality Control

To protect both the purity of the vaccine and the safety of the workers who make and package the vaccine, conditions of laboratory cleanliness are observed throughout the procedure. All transfers of virus and media are conducted under sterile conditions, and all instruments used are sterilized in an autoclave (a machine that kills organisms by heat, and which may be as small as a jewel box or as large as an elevator) before and after use. Workers performing the procedures wear protective clothing which includes disposable tyvek gowns, gloves, booties, hair nets, and face masks. The manufacturing rooms themselves are specially air conditioned so that there is a minimal number of particles in the air.

The Approval Process

In order for prescription drugs to be sold in the United States, a drug manufacturer must meet strict licensing requirements established by law and enforced by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

All prescription drugs must undergo three phases of testing, although data from the second phase can sometimes be used to meet third phase requirements. Phase 1 testing must prove that a medicine is safe, or at least that no untoward or unexpected effects will occur from its administration. If a medicine passes Phase I testing, it must next be tested for efficacy—it must do what it is supposed to do; medicine cannot be sold that is useless, or that makes claims for an effect that it does not have. Finally, Phase III testing is designed to quantify the effectiveness of a medicine or drug. Although vaccines are expected to have effectiveness close to 100%, certain medicines might well be acceptable even if they have limited effectiveness, as long as the prescribing physician knows the odds.

The entire manufacturing process is reviewed carefully by the FDA which examines records of procedures as well as visiting the manufacturing site itself. Each step in the manufacturing process must be documented, and the manufacturer must demonstrate a "state of control" for the manufacturing process. This means that scrupulous records must be kept for every step in the process, and there must be written instructions for each step of the process. Except in cases of grievous error, the FDA does not determine if each step in a process is correct, but only that it is safe and is documented sufficiently to be performed as the manufacturer stipulates.

The Future

Producing a usable, safe antiviral vaccine involves a large number of steps which, unfortunately, cannot always be done for each and every virus. There is still much to be done and learned. The new methods of molecular manipulation have caused more than one scientist to believe that the vaccine technology is only now entering a "golden age." Refinements of existing vaccines are possible in the future. Rabies vaccine, for example, produces side effects which make the vaccine unsatisfactory for mass immunization; in the United States, rabies vaccine is now used only on patients who have contracted the virus from an infected animal and are likely, without immunization, to develop the fatal disease.

The HIV virus, which biologists believe causes AIDS, is not currently amenable to traditional vaccine production methods. The AIDS virus rapidly mutates from one strain to another, and any given strain does not seem to confer immunity against other strains. Additionally, a limited, immunizing effect of either attenuated or killed virus cannot be demonstrated in either the laboratory or in test animals. No HIV vaccine has yet been developed.

Where To Learn More


Dulbecco, Renato and Harold S. Ginsberg. Virology. 2nd edition. J.B. Lippincott Company, 1988.

Plotkin, Stanley A. and Edward A. Mortimer, Jr., eds. Vaccines. W.B. Saunders Company, 1988.

Lawrence H. Berlow

Also read article about Vaccine from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

zahra nagheh
that was really great and useful
thanks for this article
Bruce Wilson
Given the rational for how vaccines work, I am puzzled as to why the Rabies vaccine would be given to someone *after* they have already contracted the virus. Since the vaccine contains the virus, why would giving someone an additional viral load help this patient? My understanding is that vaccines are prophylactics-they are only good if consumed prior to infection. Can you provide a rational as to why giving someone the Rabies virus after they already are infected with it helps, I would appreciate it.

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