Watch Grey Matters: What the History of Vaccines Can Tell Us About the Future

Written by: The Exchange

In record time, the world has three COVID-19 vaccines but our resumption of normal life hangs on the success of making and distributing hundreds of millions of doses. Will people take them? There are also serious equity issues as to who has access to vaccine. Asking Americans to place their trust in a brand new technology demands clear communication about what we know and what we don’t. And let’s face it, science’s track record for getting this kind of messaging right hasn’t always been great.

Our present day conundrums are not new. Our grandparents faced similar quagmires and human nature was the same one hundred years ago. Join us as we lay out what’s at stake as we look at examples from our public health history that show where we’ve gone wrong and where we’ve gone right, and what the past can teach us about 2021.


Ruth Faden is the founder of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, and its director from 1995 until 2016. She is also the Philip Franklin Wagley Professor of Biomedical Ethics. Her research focuses on structural injustice theory and public policy. Currently Ruth is working at the intersection of structural justice and the COVID-19 response, primarily in vaccine allocation and prioritization and K-12 education.

Howard Markel is a physician, medical educator, and historian of medicine, the George E. Wantz Professor of the History of Medicine, and a member of the National Academy of Medicine. He has provided federal and state public health policy makers with a historical perspective on the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic in light of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, and served on Team B, an expert panel convened to advise the director of the CDC during the pandemic.

Reed V. Tuckson is Managing Director at Tuckson Health Connections, LLC. He also worked at UnitedHealth Group as the Executive Vice President and Chief of Medical Affairs and was the Senior Vice President of Professional Standards at the American Medical Association and the President of the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.