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Author reflects on writing a book about vaccines, medical research Date: 02/02/18

Meredith Wadman

By Bara Vaida

In 2017, D.C.-based Science writer Meredith Wadman published her first book, “The Vaccine Race: Science, Politics and the Human Costs of Defeating Disease.” The fascinating book profiles key vaccine researchers, including Leonard Hayflick and Stanley Plotkin. It tells the story of how vaccines for diseases such as rubella and rabies were created and how the research led to an understanding of how and why humans age. The book also takes an unflinching look at the dark side of medical research, including the use of vulnerable populations for vaccine clinical trials, before the U.S. developed patient consent laws.

In the following Q&A Wadman talks about the process of writing her book and tips for journalists who want to write a book too.

Q: What led you to begin reporting on this story? How did it come about?

Wadman: In the summer of 2012, I was just scanning Science magazine, and I came across a letter to the editor from [scientist] Leonard Hayflick. It was two years after the book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" had been published. There was a lot of discussion in the scientific community about whether patients needed to give informed consent for the use of their tissue samples, and whether they should be paid. Science had published arguments for and against paying patients in its policy forum and there was this letter to the editor responding to the forum from Hayflick saying: ‘Well, all the attention is going to the HeLa [Henrietta Lacks] cells, but I derived some cells in 1962 from an aborted fetus, called WI-38 cells that were widely used to develop vaccines which have literally protected millions of people from disease. And not only that, they became the subject of a huge intellectual property dispute between me and the NIH [National Institutes of Health] in the 1970s and it raised questions that are still open today.’

And I read this letter, and it jumped off the page at me. How had this not already been a book? You have an aborted fetus, the use of cells from a fetus to prevent infectious diseases and an intellectual property dispute. So I phoned Leonard Hayflick within a day of reading this letter, and I said to him, ‘It sounds like there is an untold story here. He said: ‘Is there ever.’ He was like 84 going on 85 then, but he was sharp as a tack, and he invited me to his home in California. I spent hours interviewing him and got the back story on the cells. To me, it was every bit as compelling as the Henrietta Lacks story. I’ve been writing for many years and thought from time to time, oh this or that story could be a book, but never, until then, had I felt, this has to be a book. I must write it. It is my book to write. It was sort of like falling in love, like, this is it.

Q: How long did it take you to write the book?

Wadman: I came back [from the interview] and spent eight months reporting and writing a feature article about it for Nature, where I was working at the time. For awhile though, I was frustrated, because the daily business of earning a living was standing in the way. I could see the book and found an agent, Gail Ross [president of D.C.-based Ross Yoon Agency], who was great and keen on the book. She’d say, ‘When are you going to get that book proposal together?’ And I’d say, ‘I’m trying to, but I just don’t have time.’ She suggested that I apply to [think tank] New America, for a fellowship, and I got it. It allowed me to take two fully-funded years completely off from writing as a journalist. It allowed me to travel. I was able to go to Sweden to research the book. I know there are those who can work full time and write at night and on weekends, but I am not one of those people. So it was a tremendous gift for me to get the fellowship. I ended up spending three full years on the book - September 2013 to September 2016 - and the third year was unpaid.

Q: What were some of your challenges?

Wadman: Finding the money to allow me to do this book was by far the biggest challenge. Also, reining myself in. Staying on the path and not going down researcher rabbit holes. Negotiating relationships with sources [was challenging too.] Many of the people I interviewed were in their 80s and felt reticent about talking about things that now aren’t considered ethical, like [medical] testing on orphans and prisoners. I was lucky that Leonard Hayflick, though 85, had extremely good recall and would talk at length, so he was a dream source. Stanley Plotkin [the other vaccine researcher I profiled in the book] is a more reticent character, but he answered my questions unfailingly. And he was extremely generous with his papers. He had a trove of private papers from his work in the 1960s, which were just gold. He shared them with me, and they told the story.

Q: Where else did you get information for this story?

Wadman: The archives at the University of Pennsylvania and the Wistar Institute [where much of the vaccine research had been done] had gems of information. The University kept things like fliers that had been posted on the walls in the main University of Pennsylvania hospital, files and letters from the time that brought to life what life was like then. That was really, really valuable.

Q: Did you learn anything unexpected?

Wadman: I hadn’t planned to write about [the development of] the rubella vaccine, but as soon as Stanley Plotkin made his papers available, I knew it was really an important story connected to the WI-38 cells. Rubella was easily the most important vaccine made with the cells. And then, I was surprised and aghast by how ubiquitous the use of powerless [patient] populations was [for research.] Orphans, prisoners, children in homes for juvenile delinquents. Anyone who has studied bioethics wouldn’t find this a revelation, but I didn’t know the number of patients used or the breadth [of the experimentation] that was happening.

Q: What advice would you have for a journalist contemplating writing a book?

Wadman: Writing a book is a lot like marriage. You just have to love the subject. You are going to be going through thick and thin, day by day, with it, so don’t do it except for the love of the subject. Do it for the love of the journey. But don’t do it if you are thinking you are doing it for the money.

Q: How did you find your book agent?

Wadman: My agent is someone my husband knew from being in D.C. Here is my advice if you are trying to find an agent: if there is a book you like ... look in the acknowledgment section of the book. Usually, the author will thank their agent, and that is the person you should seek. My agent, Gail Ross, was critical in helping me whip my proposal into shape and market it to publishers. That was essential.