Can Covid-19 be wiped out from the world just like smallpox?

| Update:
Sept. 25, 2021, 11:38 a.m.

The emergence of COVID-19 has agitated the world since March 2020. The virus has even the world’s most powerful leaders waving the white flag in desperation. “When will it end, if at all?” – 4.55 million have died to date and the world is waiting for the answer.

Pandemics and epidemics are not new to humanity. Since the prehistoric era, across different timelines of history, these brutal killers have wiped out thousands of millions of people across continents. Smallpox being the cruelest of them, plagued mankind for over 3,000 years, killing 300 million people in the twentieth century alone before disappearing completely from the face of the earth. In fact, it is the only human disease we have ever eradicated and to date is considered the greatest victory of medical science.

Smallpox was twice as contagious as Covid-19, with a death rate of 30%. Yet a resilient global effort may have erased it from existence. So can we do the same with COVID-19?

Before getting to the heart of the matter, let’s take a look at the factors that contributed to the eradication of smallpox. Along with rapid vaccination and global cooperation, researchers have also come up with a smart way to contain the rate of infection called “contact tracing and isolation.” Instead of aiming to vaccinate everyone at the same time, the World Health Organization has advocated a more targeted approach in which public health professionals focus on those affected through contact tracing. Doctors and volunteers would isolate the individual and vaccinate anyone who had contact with them, as well as anyone who had contact with them, essentially creating an immune buffer between the infection and the rest of society. This was called the “ring vaccination”. It worked like a miracle even in densely populated areas like India.

Now let’s look at the COVID-19 scenario. Improved medical technology has brought us vaccines in record time and a comprehensive approach to it is already in action. But even after that, scientists are still not optimistic that the fight against COVID-19 will be the same as the fight against smallpox. With the new virus, there isn’t much room for a smallpox-like ring vaccination process. With smallpox, the symptoms were simple, and people didn’t become contagious until they started to develop a rash. This made it easier to track and isolate those infected. This is not the case with COVID-19 at all. Symptoms are not linear, varying from person to person, and even asymptomatic individuals are able to spread the disease that contributed to the degree of virality.

COVID-19 in many ways is similar to smallpox as both viruses can be transmitted through contact with infected people or objects handled by them. But an important variable in between is the animal vector. While the smallpox virus could only pass from human to human, zoonotic coronaviruses also spread from animals to humans. Researchers believe the SARS_CoV2 virus originated in bats, and currently around 13 animal species are susceptible to it, including cats and dogs. So, even if we manage to eradicate COVID-19 through global vaccination, there is still a fear that it will return to humanity as it did the first time.

Next is the generic factor – the worrisome variants of the coronavirus, which are essentially mutations of the original virus, making it increasingly adaptable. While the mutation is a very common trait of viruses and can be both favorable or unfavorable for them, it has so far been in favor of the coronavirus by increasing its transmissibility, its severity, its ability to evade detection, its resistance to vaccine-induced immunity and its resilience to treatments. Scientists fear that there may come a time when existing vaccines are rendered completely ineffective by the new strains. The smallpox virus, on the other hand, had no mutants.

In order to fight the rapid mutations of the virus, people need to be immune to it, as the virus cannot mutate without a host. The more it spreads, the more likely it is that its variants will appear. Therefore, global collaboration is cardinal. Instead, since the start of the pandemic, the world has seen its countries take a nationalistic approach towards it. Prohibitions on the export of protective equipment and life-saving medicines, even vaccines; richer countries buy supplies leaving poor more vulnerable, US withdrawing funding from WHO – questioning promise of international cooperation. UN Secretary-General António Guterres revealed in February that ten countries had administered 75% of the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines. Unequal access to vaccines and other health facilities in many parts of the world has caused the coronavirus to become the “eternal virus”. Viruses do not take nations or ideologies into account, as long as the virus is allowed to spread in pockets in any part of the world, no one is safe, not even the vaccinated population.

Researchers believe that due to the variables between COVID-19 and smallpox, it may not be possible to completely eradicate the former as was the case with the latter. But that doesn’t mean that contagion and the severity of it can’t be reduced. Once the world’s population achieves herd immunity – either through infection or through vaccination (hopefully the latter), the pandemic will subside and turn into an endemic with less formidable strains. We’ve seen the same thing happen with the flu, swine flu, malaria, etc. This is also how the four endemic coronaviruses behave, called 229E, OC43, NL63 and HKU1.

Overall, COVID-19 is just not a good candidate for eradication. Fortunately, this is not the only option. The virus can be managed and controlled with annual vaccinations and boosters, like other cases of the flu, rarely turning into anything other than a boring childhood cold.

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About Norma Wade

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