Less than a year after the coronavirus crossed the globe to ravage our economy and a quarter million American lives, a vaccine appears to be within our reach. Both Pfizer and Moderna have reportedly produced vaccines that offer 95% and 94.5% immunity from the pandemic, respectively. And thanks to the Trump administration’s initiative, the vaccine will be fully funded by the federal government.
Both vaccines use the potentially revolutionary technology of messenger RNA to trigger the body’s immune system into creating antibodies rather than more traditional methods of using bits of a virus. If the coronavirus vaccines continue to prove as promising as they seem, the possibilities for the future of vaccine science are monumental.
Although the invention of inoculation science is often attributed to Edward Jenner, the immunologist who created the smallpox vaccine around the turn of the 19th century, inoculation likely dates back a millennium. A thousand years ago, it seems the Chinese may have protected themselves from smallpox by scraping and grinding smallpox scabs into a powder for healthy people to then inhale.
English residents in India witnessed 18th century Indians replicate a similar tactic, and Sanskrit texts indicate that such methods may have dated back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The science of inoculation, if you want to call it that, then traveled west to the Ottoman Empire and Europe. However, the practice remained as facile as using raw scabs until Jenner’s revolutionary smallpox vaccine research.
Since then, vaccines have saved tens of millions of lives. The flu vaccine has made seasonal influenza vastly less fatal, and with the common use of polio and hepatitis vaccines, among others, formerly frequent causes of morbidity and mortality have become rounding errors. In Australia, the widespread use of the relatively recent HPV vaccine has the continent on track to abolish cervical cancer, which causes upward of 311,000 deaths per year worldwide.
Before the pandemic, the Western world faced a crisis in confidence in vaccination fueled by the conspiracy theorist Andrew Wakefield and his has-been celebrity enablers such as Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey. Hopefully, our coronavirus vaccine breakthrough can put the ludicrous and murderous anti-vaccine movement to bed because I, for one, am grateful we don’t have to inhale scabs anymore.