Senior Producer, CNN Medical Unit
I’d just gotten the kids to bed and was cleaning up the house when the news flashed on my blackberry – a Chinese news report that researchers in South Korea, working with a sample from Atlanta, had discovered a potential vaccine against the swine flu H1N1 virus. It was nearly 10 o’clock at night but that’s how this goes – a worldwide, round-the-clock effort for the past several weeks, what some are calling a model of international cooperation.
A few minutes later I was on the phone with Dr. Seo Sang-heui, of Chungnam National University. He told me that yes, he believes he has created a vaccine that could be used against the virus. He’s packed up eight vials of the new vaccine and was waiting for a courier to pick them up and fly them to Atlanta, for testing at the CDC. He figured the courier would arrive in about an hour.
We’re not talking about a usable vaccine, not yet, but this is an important step. Here’s how it works: the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention isolated the 2009 H1N1 virus in its lab, in Atlanta. It sent isolates to a number of researchers around the world – including, it appears, Dr. Seo. These researchers follow a careful regimen, genetically modifying the vaccine to make it grow well, while keeping the traits that will – we hope – induce a strong immune response. It’s a process of trial and error, but Dr. Seo told me that in the past few days he figured out a way to grow the modified virus in an agar solution. He says he’s doing what any vaccine researcher would do, sending the samples back to Atlanta at no charge, with no conditions attached.
A few weeks ago I saw something extraordinary: the medical planning book for one of President Bush’s presidential trips. It was almost three dozen pages. Not a briefing book, not a policy paper, just collected medical information, itineraries, routes and contact information for every possible specialist who might be in the area. What was really extraordinary is that this was no special moment – just a simple day trip, a half-day of official business in another state.
The president is no ordinary patient. As we put together a documentary, "Fit to Lead," about White House medical care, we’ve seen again and again that caring for the president comes with special considerations. The logistics alone are staggering. Along with planning books like the one I saw, the president always has his doctor nearby, or one of a handful of backups on the White House medical staff. Air Force One has a mobile operating room on board. When the president is in a foreign country, some poor medical staffer has to lug around a heavy cooler filled with containers of the president’s blood type.
The stakes are high, but presidents are flesh and blood, subject to the same ailments as the rest of us. It’s just that when the president gets sick, it can change the course of history. Franklin Roosevelt was suffering from congestive heart failure at the Yalta peace talks after World War Two. He died two months later. Some historians say he wasn’t thinking clearly – that he never would have given Joseph Stalin so much control over Eastern Europe if he weren’t so sick and physically weak. Of course we’ll never know for sure.
Programming note: Don’t miss CNN Special Investigations Unit “Fit to Lead” with Dr. Sanjay Gupta Saturday and Sunday, October 11th and 12th at 8p and 11p ET
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