In 2020, if a person contracted COVID-19, then on average, they would have spread it to 2 or 3 other people. Those 2 or 3 other people would on average, had spread it to another 2 or 3, and so on. One out of every 200 people who became infected died. In one year, this virus killed over 2 million people worldwide. Now let's back up.
Imagine if the virus were even more contagious. If every infected person passed it on to an average of 4 or 6 people. And if its fatality rate were much much higher closer to 3 in 10. This devastating scenario was in the case of smallpox. Smallpox claimed hundreds of millions of lives in the twentieth century alone. This disease plagued humanity for centuries before that, and then it was gone. We successfully eradicated or, completely wiped smallpox out of existence. So how did we do it?
Successful Elimination Of Deadly Viruses In The Past
It starts with the vaccine. In the late 17 hundreds, a scientist named Edward Jenner developed a brand new way to fight smallpox. He called it vaccination. Before this point, the only way to get immunity from smallpox was to catch it either through misfortune or on purpose. Jenner's method was far less dangerous. Word of the vaccine spread quickly. within 5 years it was in America, within 10 it was brought to Asia.
Vaccination alone would eventually be enough to drastically reduce cases. And that's partly because of how small poxes spread. Unlike a disease like malaria which can spread to humans from mosquitos or Ebola which can spread to humans from bats and other animals, smallpox was only transmissible among humans. There were no animal vectors.
This means vaccinating people would slowly eliminate the only way it could spread. By early 1900, most of the European Union, the United States & Canada had nearly wiped out smallpox. But countries with fewer resources, simple unrest or higher population density struggle to effectively vaccinate. As long as smallpox existed, somewhere it was a threat to people everywhere.
True medication would require a global framework. In 1967, the World Health Organization (WHO) established a unified plan to eradicate smallpox, once and for all. Having a centralized agency changed the game for public health. Nations pulled together and vaccination campaigns spread around the globe. Initially, the goal was simple: “Vaccinate everyone”.
But that proved harder in densely populated places like India. It was hard to track outbreaks of the virus that could spread quickly. In 1974, over 15000 people in India died of smallpox in 5 months. So the World Health Organization proposed a more targeted approach. Instead of trying to vaccinate everyone at once, public health officials focused on infected individuals.
Using a form of contact tracing, doctors and volunteers would isolate the person and vaccinate anyone who would come in contact with them. This was called ring vaccination. It worked really well, not just in India but around the world. On 5th August 1980, the World Health Organization declared smallpox eradicated. These are the 4 factors that helped us eradicate smallpox.
How Is The Case Of Coronavirus Any Different?
Well, there is no single path to disease eradication. If one or more of these can't be met, it will make it much harder if not impossible. So let's talk about COVID-19. Vaccines aren't the problem. New technologies have brought us effective and safe vaccines in record time. The issue with COVID-19 is the way it spreads.
Let's start with animal vectors. Researchers believe the Coronavirus originated in bats which means there's a way for it to spread from animals to humans. So even if we were to completely remove it from the human population, it could reappear just as it did the first time. But the way it spreads from human to human is also a problem.
A person with smallpox could only spread the disease if they were showing symptoms. A person with COVID-19 can be contagious days before that point. Some people never develop symptoms at all. It's much harder to effectively trace something you can't see or isolate a person that doesn't even realize that they're sick.
From the beginning of the pandemic, many countries have taken a nationalist approach to it. Some countries banned exports of protective gear some countries restricted the export of vital drugs and the United States pulled funding from the World Health Organization. In a September meeting, the UN secretary-general said the pandemic is a clear test of international cooperation. A test that we have essentially failed.
Even as vaccines become available richer countries are buying up the supplies leaving poorer nations behind, and that's a big problem. Leaving the virus to spread unchecked in these other places gives it more time to spread, which increases its chances to mutate. Variants of the virus are already popping up and that leaves the whole world at risk. All in all, Covid-19 is not a good candidate for eradication. But eradication isn't the only option.
Smallpox is the only human disease we've ever eradicated. It's much more common for us to contain and control the disease. That's where many researchers think we will land with COVID-19. We will vaccinate and manage. Lockdowns & quarantine will end and we might end up with a virus that we can manage with an annual vaccine like the flu. Or something even milder as adults and vulnerable populations build immunity.
In short, it's possible COVID-19 will become endemic. It will be always around but rarely developing into anything more than a common cold. It's not the best answer, but it's a reality we will learn to be comfortable with. We'll be able to go back to the way things were before.
Eradicating smallpox took a colossal effort. Centuries to create effective vaccines. And then decades more to build the framework needed for global campaigns. It's a reminder of what we're capable of as a society, but it's also a warning.
COVID-19 is far from the worst disease nature has to offer. And this pandemic has shown us that we're not ready for something worse. Because our failure isn't that we can't eradicate COVID-19, it's that we let it rise to pandemic proportions.