40th anniversary of eradication of smallpox: lessons and hope for fight against COVID-19

On 8 May, 1980, the World Health Organization officially announced the eradication of the smallpox-causing variola virus nearly two centuries after the discovery of an initial vaccine. The story of smallpox, the fight against it and its eventual defeat is one that is highly relevant to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Smallpox is highly contagious transmitted via droplets during close contact or on surfaces causing high fever and a rash that caused disfigurement and blindness amongst those who survived. The virus killed up to 30% of all those infected and is thought to have killed more than 300 million people in the 20th century alone.

The fight to eradicate smallpox

This devastating virus was the subject of the world's first vaccine developed by Edward Jenner in 1796. However, a concerted effort to eradicate the disease only emerged in the mid-twentieth century during a rare moment of global cooperation during the Cold War. In 1959, the World Health Organization (WHO) initiated a plan to rid the world of smallpox. The initial effort lacked funding however a full global campaign was eventually launched in 1967.

The Intensified Eradication Program had a number of key elements:
  1. A significant increase in manufacture of vaccines and the development of cold storage facilities in countries most effected.
  2. Mass vaccination programmes and public education programmes
  3.  A focus on tracking and tracing infections and contacts and the development of a global surveillance system.
Global cooperation and intensified efforts in the areas of disease surveillance and vaccination programmes combined to defeat smallpox. The last recorded natural case was in Somalia in 1977.

Lessons and hope in the fight against COVID-19

The defeat of smallpox can offer hope in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its defeat was only possible through the combined efforts of many scientists, medical and public health professionals in many countries. The collaborative approach to its eradication can also help inform current efforts to defeat the virus. For example concerted contact tracing and the sharing of this information will be vital to slowing the spread of the virus until an effective vaccine is developed and rolled out.

Speaking during a virtual event to commemorate smallpox eradication WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “As the world confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, humanity’s victory over smallpox is a reminder of what is possible when nations come together to fight a common health threat.”

Read more:

CDC: Smallpox

WHO: Smallpox