Why do we still use Sabin poliovirus vaccine?

VAPPThe Sabin infectious, attenuated poliovirus vaccines are known to cause vaccine-associated paralysis in a small number of recipients. In contrast, the Salk inactivated vaccine does not cause poliomyelitis. Why are the Sabin vaccines still used globally? The answer to this question requires a brief visit to the history of poliovirus vaccines.

The inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV) developed by Jonas Salk was licensed for use in 1955. This vaccine consists of the three serotypes of poliovirus whose infectivity, but not immunogenicity, is destroyed by treatment with formalin. When prepared properly, IPV does not cause poliomyelitis (early batches of IPV were not sufficiently inactivated, leading to vaccine-associated outbreaks of polio, the so-called Cutter incident). From 1955 to 1960 cases of paralytic poliomyelitis in the United States dropped from 20,000 per year to 2,500.

While Salk’s vaccine was under development, several investigators pursued the production of infectious, attenuated vaccines as an alternative. This approach was shown to be effective by Max Theiler, who in 1937 had made an attenuated vaccine against yellow fever virus by passage of the virulent virus in laboratory mice. After many passages, the virus no longer caused disease in humans, but replicated sufficiently to induce protective immunity. Albert Sabin capitalized on these observations and developed attenuated versions of the three serotypes of poliovirus by passage of virulent viruses in different animals and cells. In contrast to Theiler’s yellow fever vaccine, which was injected, Sabin’s poliovirus vaccines were designed to be taken orally – hence the name oral poliovirus vaccine (OPV). As in a natural poliovirus infection, Sabin’s vaccines would replicate in the intestinal tract and induce protective immunity there and in the bloodstream.

Sabin began testing his attenuated vaccines in humans in 1954. By 1957 there was evidence that the virus that was fed to volunteers was not the same as the virus excreted in the feces. As Sabin writes:

It was evident, however, that as in the young adult volunteers, the virus in some of the stool specimens had a greater neurovirulence than the virus originally swallowed in tests in monkeys.

What Sabin did not know was whether the change in neurovirulence of his vaccine strains constituted a threat to the vaccine recipients and their contacts, a question that could only be answered by carrying out larger clinical trials. Many felt that such studies were not warranted, especially considering the success of IPV in reducing the number of paralytic cases. Sabin notes that his friend Tom Rivers, often called the father of American virology, told him to ‘discard the large lots of OPV that I had prepared into a suitable sewer’.

Despite the opposition to further testing of OPV in the US, others had different views. An international committee of the World Health Organization recommended in 1957 that larger trials of OPV should be carried out in different countries. Sabin’s type 2 vaccine was given to 200,000 children during an outbreak of polio in Singapore in 1958, and follow-up studies revealed no safety problems. In Czechoslovakia 140,000 children were given OPV and subsequent studies revealed that the virus spread to unimminized contacts but did not cause disease.

Perhaps the most important numbers came from trials of OPV in the Soviet Union. Sabin had been born in Russia and had close contacts with Soviet virologists, including Mikhail Chumakov, director of the Poliomyelitis Research Institute in Moscow. Chumakov was not satisfied with the results of IPV trials in his country and asked Sabin to send him OPV for testing. By the end of 1959 nearly 15,000,000 people had been given OPV in different parts of the Soviet Union with no apparent side effects. Dorothy Horstmann, a well known virologist at Yale University, was sent to the Soviet Union to evaluate the outcome of the trials. Horstmann writes:

It was clear that the trials had been carefully carried out, and the results were monitored meticulously in the laboratory and in the field. By mid-1960 approximately 100 million persons in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany had received the Sabin strains. Of great importance was the demonstration that the vaccine was safe, not only for the recipients, but for the large numbers of unvaccinated susceptible who must have been exposed as contacts of vaccines.

The results obtained from these trials in the Soviet Union convinced officials in the US and other countries to carry out clinical trials of OPV. In Japan, Israel, Chile, and other countries, OPV was shown to be highly effective in terminating epidemics of poliomyelitis. In light of these findings, all three of Sabin’s OPV strains were approved for use in the US, and in 1961-62 they replaced IPV for routine immunization against poliomyelitis.

As soon as OPV was used in mass immunizations in the US, cases of vaccine-associated paralysis were described. Initially Sabin decried these findings, arguing that temporal association of paralysis with vaccine administration was not sufficient to implicate OPV. He suggested that the observed paralysis was caused by wild-type viruses, not his vaccine strains.

A breakthrough in our understanding of vaccine-associated paralysis came in the early 1980s when the recently developed DNA sequencing methods were used to determine the nucleotide sequences of the genomes of the Sabin type 3 vaccine, the neurovirulent virus from which it was derived, and a virus isolated from a child who had developed paralysis after administration of OPV. The results enumerated for the first time the mutations that distinguish the Sabin vaccine from its neurovirulent parent. More importantly, the genome sequence of the vaccine-associated isolate proved that it was derived from the Sabin vaccine and was not a wild-type poliovirus.

We now understand that every recipient of OPV excretes, within a few days, viruses that are more neurovirulent that the vaccine strains. This evolution occurs because during replication of the OPV strains in the human intestine, the viral genome undergoes mutation and recombination that eliminate the attenuating mutations that Sabin so carefully selected by passage in different hosts.

From 1961 to 1989 there were an average of 9 cases (range, 1-25 cases) of vaccine-associated paralytic poliomyelitis (VAPP) in the United States, in vaccine recipients or their contacts, or 1 VAPP case per 2.9 million doses of OPV distributed (illustrated). Given this serious side effect, the use of OPV was evaluated several times by the Institute of Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. Each time it was decided that the risks associated with the use of OPV justified the cases of VAPP. It was believed that a switch to IPV would lead to outbreaks of poliomyelitis, because: OPV was better than IPV at protecting non-immunized recipients; the need to inject IPV would lead to reduced compliance; and IPV was known to induce less protective mucosal immunity than OPV.

After the WHO began its poliovirus eradication initiative in 1988, the risk of poliovirus importation into the US slowly decreased until it became very difficult to justify routine use of OPV. In 1996 the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices decided that the US would transition to IPV and by 2000 IPV had replaced OPV for the routine prevention of poliomyelitis. As a consequence VAPP has been eliminated from the US.

OPV continues to be used in mass immunization campaigns for the WHO poliovirus eradication program, because it is effective at eliminating wild polioviruses, and is easy to administer. A consequence is that neurovirulent vaccine-derived polioviruses (VDPV) are excreted by immunized children. These VDPVs have caused outbreaks of poliomyelitis in areas where immunization coverage has dropped. Because VDPVs constitute a threat to the eradication campaign, WHO has recommended a global transition to IPV. Once OPV use is eliminated, careful environmental surveillance must be continued to ensure that VDPVs are no longer present before immunization ceases, a goal after eradication of poliomyelitis.

As a virologist working on poliovirus neurovirulence, I have followed the vaccine story since I joined the field in 1979. I have never understood why no cases of VAPP were observed in the huge OPV trials carried out in the Soviet Union. Had VAPP been identified in these trials, OPV might not have been licensed in the US. Global use of OPV has led to near global elimination of paralytic poliomyelitis. Would the exclusive use of IPV have brought us to the same point, without the unfortunate cases of vaccine-associated paralysis? I’m not sure we will ever know the answer.

Update: As recently as 1997 DA Henderson, architect of smallpox eradication, argued that developed countries should not use IPV, because it ‘implies accepting the potential of substantial penalties while reducing but not eliminating, an already extremely small risk of vaccine-associated paralytic illness’.

An unexpected benefit of inactivated poliovirus vaccine

Poliovirus by Jason Roberts

Poliovirus by Jason Roberts

The polio eradication and endgame strategic plan announced by the World Health Organization in 2014 includes at least one dose of inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV). Since 1988, when WHO announced the polio eradication plan, it had relied exclusively on the use of oral poliovirus vaccine (OPV). The rationale for including a dose of IPV was to avoid outbreaks of vaccine-derived type 2 poliovirus. This serotype had been eradicated in 1999 and had consequently been removed from OPV. However IPV, which is injected intramuscularly and induces highly protective humoral immunity, is less effective in producing intestinal immunity than OPV. This property was underscored by the finding that wild poliovirus circulated in Israel during 2013, a country which had high coverage with IPV. Furthermore, in countries that use only IPV, over 90% of immunized children shed poliovirus after oral challenge. I have always viewed this shortcoming of IPV as problematic, in view of the recommendation of the World Health Organization to gradually shift from OPV to IPV. Even if the shift to IPV occurs after eradication of wild type polioviruses, vaccine-derived polioviruses will continue to circulate because they cannot be eradicated by IPV. My concerns are now mitigated by new results from a study in India which indicate that IPV can boost intestinal immunity in individuals who have already received OPV.

To assess the ability of IPV to boost mucosal immunity, 954 children in three age groups (6-11 months, 5 and 10 years) were immunized with IPV, bivalent OPV (bOPV, containing types 1 and 3 only), or no vaccine. Four weeks later all children were challenged with bOPV, and virus shedding in the feces was determined 0, 3, 7, and 14 days later. The results show that 8.8, 9.1, and 13.5% of children in the 6-11 month, 5-year and 10-year old groups shed type 1 poliovirus in feces, compared with 14.4, 24.1, and 52.4% in the control group. Immunization with IPV reduced fecal shedding of poliovirus types 1 (39-74%) and 3 (53-76%). The reduction of shedding was greater after immunization with IPV compared with bOPV.

This study shows that a dose of IPV is more effective than OPV at boosting intestinal immunity in children who have previously been immunized with OPV. Both IPV and OPV should be used together in the polio eradication program. WHO therefore recommends the following vaccine regimens:

  • In all countries using OPV only, at least 1 dose of type 2 IPV should be added to the schedule.
  • In polio-endemic countries and in countries with a high risk for wild poliovirus importation and spread: one OPV birth dose, followed by 3 OPV and at least 1 IPV doses.
  • In countries with high immunization coverage (90-95%) and low wild poliovirus importation risk: an IPV-OPV sequential schedule when VAPP is a concern, comprising 1-2 doses of IPV followed by 2 or mores doses of OPV.
  • In countries with both sustained high immunization coverage and low risk of wild poliovirus importation and transmission: an IPV only schedule.

Type 2 OPV will be gradually removed from the global immunization schedules. There have been no reported cases of type 3 poliovirus since November 2012. If this wild type virus is declared eradicated later this year, presumably WHO will recommend withdrawal of type 3 OPV and replacement with type 3 IPV.

All 342 confirmed cases of poliomyelitis in 2014 were caused by type 1 poliovirus in 9 countries, mainly Pakistan and Afghanistan. Given the social and political barriers to immunization, it will likely take many years to eradicate this serotype.

Oral polio vaccine-associated paralysis in a child despite previous immunization with inactivated virus

Poliovirus by Jason Roberts

Poliovirus by Jason Roberts

Vaccine-associated poliomyelitis caused by the oral poliovirus vaccine is rare, but its occurrence in a healthy, immunocompetent 6-month old child was highly unusual because the child had been previously immunized with two doses of the injected, inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV).

The three poliovirus vaccine strains developed by Albert Sabin (OPV, oral poliovirus vaccine) contain mutations which prevent them from causing paralytic disease. When the vaccine is ingested, the viruses replicate in the intestine, and immunity to infection develops. While replicating in the intestinal tract, the vaccine viruses undergo mutation, and OPV recipients excrete neurovirulent polioviruses. These so-called vaccine-derived polioviruses (VDPV) can cause poliomyelitis in the recipient of the vaccine or in a contact. During the years that the Sabin poliovirus vaccines were used in the US, cases of poliomyelitis caused by VDPV occurred at a rate of about 1 per 1.4 million vaccine doses, or 7-8 per year. Once the disease was eradicated from the US in 1979, the only cases of polio were caused by the Sabin vaccine.

To prevent vaccine-associated poliomyelitis, in 1997 the US switched to an immunization schedule consisting of two doses of IPV followed by one dose of OPV. The US then switched to using IPV exclusively in 2000. The child in this case essentially had a polio immunization course similar to that utilized in the US from 1997-2000: two doses of IPV, one dose of OPV. Why did the child develop poliomyelitis?

One clue comes from the fact that after the switch to an IPV-OPV schedule in 1997, there were still three cases of VAPP in 1998 and three in 1999. Another hint comes from a study of immune responses in children given multiple doses of IPV. Most of the children receiving two doses of IPV produced antibodies against types 1 and 2 poliovirus (92 and 94%), but only 74% of children produced antibodies against type 3 poliovirus.

The final piece of information needed to solve this puzzle is that the child in this case had vaccine-associated poliovirus caused by the type 3 strain, which was isolated from his feces.

Therefore, the child in this case most likely did not produce sufficient antibodies to type 3 poliovirus after receiving the two doses of IPV. As a consequence, when he was given OPV, he developed type 3 vaccine-associated poliomyelitis.

This case of VAPP could have been prevented: the child was born in Canada, and as customary in that country since 1995, he received two doses of IPV. At 5 months of age the child and his family visited China, where his parents decided to continue his immunizations according to the local schedule. China still uses OPV, so that is what the child received.

Poliovirus vaccine safety

Albert SabinThe contamination of the rotavirus vaccine Rotarix with porcine circovirus 1 DNA was revealed by deep sequencing. The same technique was also used to demonstrate that oral poliovirus vaccine does not contain viruses that can cause poliomyelitis.

The oral poliovirus vaccine strains developed by Albert Sabin (pictured) were licensed in the United States in 1962, and over the next 37 years immunization with these vaccines lead to the eradication of poliomyelitis in this country. During that period, the vaccine was responsible for 5-10 cases of poliomyelitis each year, either in recipients of the vaccine or in their contacts. Some of these individuals have sued the manufacturers of the vaccine, claiming that they made a defective product.

OPV contains three different poliovirus strains which were selected by Sabin because they do not cause poliomyelitis. We call such vaccine strains avirulent or attenuated. The mutations in the genetic information of the virus that prevent the development of paralysis have been identified. Unfortunately, these mutations are unstable. After oral administration, OPV replicates in the intestinal tract. During this phase the vaccine viruses undergo genetic change and eventually lose the mutations that made them avirulent. As a consequence, nearly every infant who receives OPV sheds in the feces polioviruses that are significantly more neurovirulent than those that were ingested.

Vaccine-associated poliomyelitis is caused by vaccine revertants that accumulate in the alimentary tract of immunized individuals. These neurovirulent viruses arise not because the vaccine is improperly prepared, but as a consequence of mutation during replication in the intestine. Proving this point to lay juries has been difficult. Now deep sequencing of poliovirus vaccine can show whether or not vaccine preparations are contaminated with neurovirulent viruses.

Deep sequence analysis of OPV manufactured by Bharat Biotech was done to detect mutations associated with neurovirulence. There are four mutations in the genome of type 1, two in the genome of type 2, and three in the genome of type 3 that are important for the attenuated property of the vaccine. The base present at each of these positions in the neurovirulent wild type viruses, and in the vaccine strains, is shown in the table.

Determinants of attenuation

The results of sequence analysis show that the Bharat vaccine does not contain any of the ‘wild type’ bases at these nine positions. Any vaccine-associated poliomyelitis associated with this vaccine is not a consequence of faulty production, but the fact that vaccine strains mutate during replication in the human gut.

There have been many lawsuits involving vaccine-associated poliomyelitis in which plaintiffs claim that the OPV was incorrectly manufactured, leading to a product of unacceptably high neurovirulence. Deep sequencing analysis of these lots of vaccine could have resolved this claim in a way that a lay jury could understand.