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‘Vaccine diplomacy’: A Prescription for North and South Korea

Nearly sixty years ago, an unlikely collaboration between the United States and the Soviet Union yielded one of the world’s greatest medical breakthroughs: the first oral polio vaccine. Tensions were at an all-time high following the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite and the successful detonation of the Soviet hydrogen bomb; yet, American Dr. Albert Sabin and a group of Russian virologists secured permissions from their respective governments to collaborate on developing, perfecting and testing the Oral Poliovirus Vaccine (OPV) that has led us today to the near eradication of polio worldwide.

Could this same “vaccine diplomacy” act as a catalyst for improving relations between North Korea and South Korea?

Dr. Peter Hotez, founding dean and professor of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, answers this question with a resounding yes. For Dr. Hotez, 2013 has all the makings of a “breakout year” in North and South Korean relations that could see an “unprecedented level of scientific collaboration”, translating into improved diplomatic relations. Vaccine diplomacy in particular can play a key role in reuniting North and South Korea by collaborating on joint public health programs.

Albert Sabin with Dr. Victor Zhdanov, Soviet deputy minister of health, 1958 Courtesy of Heloisa Sabin (Smithsonian source)

Today, the Korean peninsula is afflicted with a number of endemic neglected tropical diseases, or NTDs, that impede economic development and pose a tangible threat to public health, in both North and South Korea. Both countries have failed to control NTDs such as tuberculosis, malaria and other parasitic infections. These failures to contain and curb NTDs form a strong basis for the need of North/South collaboration in implementing joint control and vaccination programs. Such an opportunity for scientific diplomacy holds great potential in reducing geopolitical tension by linking North and South Korean leaders around a common goal. Ultimately, efforts such as these could lead to lifesaving initiatives, benefiting millions of lives throughout the Korean peninsula in the process.

While vaccine diplomacy could lead to a scientific and diplomatic collaboration between North and South Korea, some doubt that Hotez’s vaccine diplomacy is feasible in the current political environment. While the resources and technology exist to create such scientific and diplomatic collaboration, the geopolitical situation will impede any real joint North/South collaboration in the health front because the peninsula remains in a perpetual state of war, according to Dr. Hsu, a faculty member at the Korea Development Institute.  Recently, the South’s joint military drills with the United States, and the recent UN sanctions, have left an embittered Pyongyang that vowed to nullify the 1953 armistice that brought the Korean war to an end, and an attack to the United States promising a “sea of fire”.

However, Dr. Hotez remains confident that his vision for Korean peninsula collaboration is feasible. “Who would have believed that Dr. Albert Sabin would collaborate with Soviet virologists to develop and test the first oral polio vaccine in the late 1950s and into 1960? Yet it happened right after the Soviet Sputnik launch and around Soviet testing of the hydrogen bomb, including the world’s largest ever man-made explosion”, he wrote in an e-mail to a UN DISPATCH correspondent.

“That’s the point of vaccine diplomacy — it’s not supposed to be easy.”

-Asmae Toumi


Featured Image (click for Smithsonian source) depicts Albert Sabin’s medal, box and vial of Russian oral vaccine, matchbox advertising the vaccine campaign, two photographs of Sabin with Russian scientists, 1956-1958 Medal courtesy of University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati Medical Heritage Center, Academic Information Technology and Libraries; other items courtesy of Heloisa Sabin 


About Asmae Toumi

Asmae is 3rd year undergrad McGill student, majoring in Microbiology and Molecular Biotechnology, with a minor in Social Studies of Medicine. She volunteers as a first responder for St. John Ambulance and works as an emergency department coordinator at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. She is an aspiring physician, with interests in health, science and politics.

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  1. The story about the polio vaccine during the Soviet era is incredible. I think Hortez is definitely on to something in that he understands the real medical situations in the Koreas but unfortunately I think the diplomacy aspect might be trying to view the glass half full a little bit.. Then again, as you mention in the last paragraph I bet nobody expected it to happen between the US and Russia.
    It’s just hard to see anything productive coming from there right now given how bad things are getting. In any case, very interesting approach.

  2. Insurmountable challenges like the ones we’re seeing unfold right before our eyes sometimes demand creative solutions. These two nations seem to agree on nothing, and health could be a uniting factor and bring leaders to the same table. It might seem impossible right now, but it worked 60 years ago when the US and the Soviet Union were arguably at the height of cold war tensions. Either way, North-South cooperation on the science front might not solve the underlying issues but it could be a start in mending relations and also a clever way in creating a platform for starting scientific dialogue about the North’s nuclear weapons and missiles

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