Miracle CURES
BBC Earth|March - April 2021
As the race to develop a Covid-19 vaccine reaches a climax, Gareth Williams explores four previous attempts to rid the world of lethal diseases, from Edward Jenner’s “delightful” war on smallpox to the rancorous battle to consign polio to the past
Gareth Williams

Vaccines are back in the news, as a bridge that will hopefully lead us safely over the troubled waters of the Covid-19 pandemic. More than a hundred Covid-19 vaccines are in development worldwide, and three may be ready for use in millions of people early in 2021. This is astonishing progress, given that Covid-19 was unknown a year ago, but it doesn’t guarantee success. History has shown that promising vaccines can fail to perform in real life; as with HIV, we may still be waiting for a safe and effective Covid-19 vaccine a decade from now.

Unsurprisingly, vaccines only work if people take them. At present, up to one-third of Britons may choose not to be vaccinated against Covid-19 – possibly enough to prevent us from achieving ‘herd’ immunity. Meanwhile, the race continues for a prize worth billions of dollars and incalculable propaganda value. It’s already a dirty fight, with Russian media claiming that the University of Oxford’s vaccine (which uses a harmless chimpanzee virus as a delivery capsule) will turn those vaccinated into monkeys.

Getting to the point

The history of vaccination began formally in 1798 when Edward Jenner showed that inoculating healthy subjects with cowpox, a mild disease of cattle, protected them against smallpox. This was momentous news, as smallpox was one of humanity’s greatest scourges, killing one person in 12 worldwide and all but wiping out the Incas and Aztecs. Others had already experimented with ‘composing, but Jenner was the first to report the process and introduce it into medical practice.

The word ‘vaccination’, from Jenner’s invented Latin name for cowpox, was coined in 1800 by Plymouth surgeon Richard Dunning. Eighty years later, in homage to Jenner, Louis Pasteur proposed that the word should cover all inoculations that protect against infections. Pasteur is best known for inventing the first vaccine against rabies, but he also developed vaccines against the bacterial infections cholera and anthrax.

Two other landmark vaccines were those against dreaded tuberculosis and polio infections. The BCG vaccine against tuberculosis took more than 15 years to perfect. Its early success was marred in 1929 when 72 children died in Lübeck, Germany after being given BCG accidentally contaminated with live tuberculosis. Almost 30 years later, the first polio vaccination campaign in America was nearly derailed by a similar catastrophe, when batches of Jonas Salk’s vaccine were contaminated with live poliovirus that caused fatal outbreaks of paralytic polio.

Why would anyone not want to be vaccinated against dangerous or even lethal infections? Opposition to Jenner’s vaccine sprang up almost immediately, with religious objections against this ‘bestial’ practice which defied the will of God to determine how and when everyone must die. Many doctors also railed against vaccination, blaming it for side-effects including blood-poisoning and syphilis (both genuine, but rare) and unsubstantiated or invented complications such as cancer, madness, and – with graphic illustrations in medical journals – the transformation of vaccinated children into cows.

This brings us back to the present day, and the all-out race for a Covid-19 vaccine. Medical science has come a long way since Jenner, who knew nothing about immunity or even that infections were caused by ‘germs’. Today, the anti-vaccination movement is alive and well, and already opposed to Covid-19 vaccines even before they become available. Last year, the World Health Organisation included the refusal to be vaccinated among the top 10 threats to global health. It will be interesting to see how well vaccines and anti-vaccinationists weather the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the meantime, spare a thought for the place where it all started. Dr Jenner’s House in Berkeley, Gloucestershire is where Jenner did his experiments with cowpox (and much else), wrote his most famous work, and laid the foundations of vaccination and immunology. He died there and is buried in the church next door. The house should be a World Heritage Site, but like other small provincial museums with no government funding, may not survive the Covid pandemic. Please visit jennermuseum.com – and keep your fingers crossed that Dr Jenner’s House will still be there when, thanks to vaccination, the world gets back to normal.

Jenner’s eureka moment

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