The message from today’s World Health Organization (WHO) briefing, one held on the 40th anniversary of the eradication of smallpox, was clear: A vaccine alone won’t conquer COVID-19. From humanity’s experience of conquering smallpox, there are lessons we can learn from to hopefully conquer the coronavirus as well.
Smallpox was a devastating virus that devastated the world from the 6th century and continues to do so for thousands of years. As man’s interest in exploration grew and trade expanded, so did the disease spread globally.
With great victory, smallpox was eradicated 40 years ago. With this, the World Health Organization reports that the methods used to defeat the disease can be used today to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
In the 20th century alone, more than 300 million people died from smallpox until it was eradicated in 1975 in an effort led by the World Health Organization. Observers agree the monumental achievement was made possible by global unity and cooperation, in which even the U.S. and Russia collaborated during the height of the Cold War.
Rosamund Lewis, the head of WHO’s Smallpox Secretariat, told VOA the parallels today with COVID-19 have to do with the methods used decades ago to eradicate smallpox.
“That was achieved through basic public health, basic epidemiology, shoe-leather epidemiology, or basically case finding, contact tracing, quarantine, isolation of cases, treatment,” Lewis said. “These are the basic methods and approaches, which supported the eradication effort. Of course, for smallpox there was a vaccine and for COVID-19 we do not have one yet. Hence, again the importance of research and development.”
Samples of the smallpox virus are kept under strict containment in two WHO collaborating centers, in the United States and Russia. Lewis says controversy still swirls over whether the live virus should be retained for research purposes or destroyed, considering the risks posed if the virus accidentally escaped from one of the facilities.
However, the debate might be moot, Lewis says, as WHO and many countries have a stockpile of vaccine in the event of a resurgence of smallpox, and treatments for the disease have been approved.
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