Am I Immune to COVID-19?

A vaccination I had in 1976 might have done the trick

Angel of Death forcing a minion into prying open a fated person’s door
The Angel of Death pays a visit

(Updates provided at the end of the article, the latest being Sept. 2021)

I remember the day vividly, a hot autumn day in 1976, when my father and I entered the cafeteria of the lone public school in our Missouri town of 520 people, a K-12 school where I’d graduated in the spring, one of a class of 23 students.

We’d decided to get The Vaccine. Some of our neighbors refused.

We’d heard for weeks about this new possible sickness, the swine flu. Most people in our town were blue-collar workers or farmers. Few were well-educated. We only had four sources for news: the three network TV channels (ABC, CBS, NBC) and the Moberly Monitor-Index newspaper.

President Gerald Ford getting the swine flu vaccine in 1976

Government Hoax?

The rumors had been swirling for weeks: was it going to get us all? Would pig farmers get it first? Was it a government hoax, designed to inoculate us into total obedience?

The one thing I remember

is that the shot hurt, worse than

any shot I’d ever had.

But President Ford launched the national program for the swine flu vaccine, and had the shot himself. So I talked my father into it.

My dad and I stood in line in the cafeteria that day, waiting for our swine flu vaccines. I was newly into politics and convinced my father we had to do this, or face the horrendous sickness about to sweep the country. Knowing him, he was nonplussed — he realized we’d never done a lot of father-and-son things together, and thought casually, what the heck, can’t hurt.

But it did. The one thing I remember is that the shot hurt, worse than any shot I’d ever had.

What we were handed after the 1976 swine flu vaccine

For a few weeks, inoculated kids my age talked about “did we do ourselves in?” or “we are the ones who will survive.” I found out later that at the barbershop and Lions Club, my dad and his friends talked the same way.

Going Whole Hog with Antibiotics

At least my family had our stockpile. Our doctor, the only one in the county, also fulfilled prescriptions (legal then). My Mom had asked him for a big bottle of antibiotics to “get us through the winter”: he gave us 100 tetracyline.

1976: swine flu, and my classic 1970s stache

But nothing happened. We didn’t get sick. The swine flu didn’t decimate the U.S. I continued going to community college classes, and my father worked at the farm implement store.

It was a decade or two later when it hit me.

In high school, I’d missed about a week or two each year due to the wipeout versions of the flu. What I didn’t notice until my early 20's was that I no longer got the flu. I didn’t get an annual flu shot; those didn’t come around for another twenty-plus years. The realization of my incredible wellness hit me in my 40's when someone at work said, sniffling, “You never get sick! You’re lucky.” I thought, she’s right. I haven’t been sick in years.

While I get the flu shot each year these days, I’m 61, and can’t figure out why I never get the flu — and almost no colds, an about-face from my youth. Didn’t a few hundred martinis from my wilder Chicago years do something to my immune system? What about all that party smoking? Plus, I carried an extra 10 pounds for a decade, then added 10 more after that.

The Lucky 25 Percent

The swine flu in humans had come to attention in January 1976, when a soldier at Fort Dix, New Jersey, had symptoms and later dropped dead. Tests on other soldiers who had the same flu revealed it could be related to Swine Influenza A, which had swept the world in 1918 with devastating results. (Turns out, it wasn’t related to it after all.)

The swine flu vaccine program was stopped after only about 25 percent of Americans had taken the shot. By December 1976, there were numerous reports that people became paralyzed after getting the shot, diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS). A couple of senior citizens had dropped dead after getting it. Since COVID-19 erupted, I’ve asked numerous Boomer-generation friends and coworkers if they had the swine flu shot. I’ve only found one. Are we the lucky ones?

For a long time in the late 70's, my fear of Big Brother persisted because of that hateful 1976 shot. There was no major outbreak of swine flu, even though not everyone was vaccinated. Maybe it was really a conspiracy after all! Would those of us who got the swine flu vaccine eventually become automatons, slaving our lives away for the good of the elite, unaware we were controlled? My bigger fear should have been that the 1976 swine flu vaccination fiasco likely caused a later, truly deadly, phenomenon: anti-vaxxers.

The virus family tree

The relative of the vicious 1918 viral strain did rear up in 2009, with the H1N1 flu pandemic. An estimated 1.4 billion people contracted H1N1, but it had a fatality rate of only 0.01–0.08%. By now, H1N1 has a bunch of cousins, including another human infecter, H3N2. In cataloging the types, we are up to 18 in the “H” category and 11 in the “N” category. These puppies are multiplying like a litter.

But H1N1 brought about another discovery.

During the 2009–2010 H1N1 spread, scientists McCullers JA, Van De Velde LA, Allison KJ, et al. reported in Clinical Infectious Diseases on April 23, 2010, that 1976 swine flu recipients “mounted significant neutralizing antibody responses against the 2009 pandemic strain, with some of them demonstrating…four times the number that is the agreed-upon correlate of immunity.”

In other words, they sort of had a super-immunity, it seemed — especially for older folk in a viral-based pandemic.

“Even a related vaccine from a past season may be of some help until a perfectly matched vaccine arrives.”

Reviewer Maryn McKenna, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University of Minnesota, writing a review on the study three days after it was published, best described it: “…because the 1976 strain was only related to, and not identical to, the novel 2009 virus, the results may lend support to a hypothesis that has been periodically advanced during pandemic-preparedness planning: the idea that in time of scarcity, even a related vaccine from a past season may be of some help until a perfectly matched vaccine arrives.”

The Golden Ticket: Super Immunity

If my father were living to compare his COVID-19 resistance with mine, he’d be 96. But he died about 15 years after we had the vaccine, from a heart attack.

The questions now bubble in my mind: why were we lucky? Did the swine flu vaccine program start with “country people” who were more likely to be ignorant, the government thought, and compliant? Were the recipient areas chosen at random? Since only 25 percent of Americans got the vaccine, where were they geographically?

Are we the very lucky ones?

I hope so.

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UPDATES:

Sept. 3, 2021 —I’m searching for others who had the swine flu vaccine in the 1970s for an article I’m writing for a major publication. Please contact me at this email address: chuckmall AT yahoo. BTW, I’m still totally healthy. Haven’t even had a cold in 2021.

Mar. 28, 2021I have remained healthy despite some near-misses with contracting the COVID-19 virus, and have received my first Moderna vaccine. I’ve met more people who received the 1976 swine flu vaccine who reported strong immunity afterward. A doctor told me that the 1976 swine flu was a novel swine influenza A (H1N1) but that the vaccine created was a live-virus, very broad-spectrum composition designed to provide a wide swath of protection. Then why, I asked, was I given a paper saying I’d received a “monovalent” vaccine (single strain) instead of a polyvalent vaccine? Answer: Possibly because the rushed nature of the immunization program (now considered a failed program) caused these papers to be printed prior to the final development of the vaccine.

Aug. 16, 2020Now medical researchers are looking at the effect of previous vaccinations and how they might protect against COVID-19: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2946351/

July 1, 2020I have decided not to return to the nursing home business. The peak count at the facility where I worked was 48 cases (out of 55 residents) and 10 deaths. I lost some friends who lived there. I still wear my mask in public (though I rarely go anywhere), wash my hands frequently, and give thanks for my good health.

Apr. 8, 2020 — The nursing home I worked at (I was laid off in late March) now has 23 verified cases of COVID-19, about a third of the residents and staff. The county health department is now presuming all residents and staff are infected.

Mar. 31, 2020Due to responses for more substantiation, I’ve added a link directly above the “The Golden Ticket” subhead to the Scientific American article on the 1976 vaccine. It provides statistics on the heightened antibody response of 1976 swine flu vaccine recipients.

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Chuck Mall

Chuck Mall

Asheville NC. Former writer for men's fitness mags. Author, The Owl Motel. Writer of middle-grade fiction. Chuckmall.com and @chuckmall on SM.