When will COVID-19 pandemic end? For answers, look no further than eradication of smallpox
The study suggests a deviated, if not different, path in the form of related and weaker viruses to eradicate other diseases.
One of the most important questions that people want the answer to right now is ‘when will the COVID-19 pandemic end?’ While scientists have not (and cannot) promise a date, there are certain speculations that mass vaccination would stop the spread of the infection and help bring back society to normal or as normal as possible in a post-COVID-19 world.
The advent of vaccination has certainly been one of the major advances in healthcare. It has helped control the spread of a lot of diseases. Thanks to the mass vaccination programs, it has now been 40 years since smallpox, a deadly and disfiguring disease caused by the variola virus, was eradicated from the world.
Recently, a group of researchers at the Ancient DNA Center at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada stated that weaker strains of related viruses were being used for vaccination against smallpox and similar strategies can be used to fight against the novel coronavirus.
The findings of their study are published in the open-access journal Genome Biology.
Smallpox is an infectious disease that is caused by the variola virus of the orthomyxovirus family. Patients of the disease presented with flu-like symptoms followed by reddish spots all over the body that turned into pus-filled blisters. About three in 10 people who got the disease died from it and those who survived were often disfigured or had scars for life.
It was also the first-ever disease against which a vaccine was made. Edward Jenner, the father of vaccinology, developed a vaccine for smallpox in 1796 when he found that milkmaids who had got cowpox (a disease spread by a close relative of the smallpox virus) did not get smallpox. Jenner inoculated a nine-year-old boy with the scabs from a milkmaid’s cowpox lesions. The process was called variolation.
After a few months, Jenner exposed the boy many times with the variola virus but he did not get the disease.
Variolation was not completely safe though; the person would develop weak symptoms of the disease and may even lead to the spread of an epidemic. So, it was replaced by vaccination. Later in the 1800s, vaccinia virus (a genetically similar virus to the variola virus) replaced the cowpox virus for vaccination.
The recent study
For the Genome Biology study, researchers reconstructed and studied the genome of the variola virus from the vaccination kits from the civil war era in the USA. The kits were obtained from The Mütter Museum, The College of Physicians, Philadelphia and were dated between 1859–1873.
Studying the different viruses found on the tools, the scientists found that they were closely related to each other but were a bit different, suggesting that more than one vaccination strain was circulating amongst physicians in Philadelphia at that time.
Interestingly, a horse smallpox virus strain (identified later) clustered closely with these isolated strains and so did strains isolated from buffalos, cows and rabbits. This could suggest that all of these strains may have been used in the vaccination for smallpox.
Old vs new
Modern vaccination, even though it does not involve inoculating material from the scabs of a person, works on a similar principle. Weaker or inactivated strains of microbes are used to stimulate an immune response against the pathogen and to provide protection against the disease it causes.
However, the study suggests a deviated, if not different, path in the form of related and weaker viruses to eradicate other diseases.
Explaining the importance of their finding, Dr Hendrik Poinar, director of the Ancient DNA Center at McMaster University reportedly said, “This work points to the importance of looking at the diversity of these vaccine strains found out in the wild. We don't know how many could provide cross-protection from a wide range of viruses, such as flu or coronavirus”
For more information, read our article on How do pandemics end.
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