Success of smallpox vaccine bears lessons for coronavirus vaccine

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  • Smallpox was eradicated 40 years ago, which was the most successful vaccination programme ever 
  • Researchers are now studying smallpox virus fragments recovered from vaccination kits used during the Civil War era
  • This may help scientists in their efforts to develop a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2


Scientists who have identified the early smallpox strains used to create vaccines against the disease say this type of genetic research could help efforts to develop a vaccine against the new coronavirus.

Smallpox was among the most dangerous viral diseases in human history, killing about three of every 10 people who were infected. Many of those who survived were disabled, blind or disfigured.

The early vaccines eventually led to smallpox being declared eradicated 40 years ago in the most successful vaccination programme ever attempted. The success of the campaign and the new genetic findings about the early strains used to create vaccines highlight the value of vaccination, according to the authors of the study published late in July in the journal Genome Biology.

Vaccination 'a wonderful process'

"Understanding the history, the evolution and the ways in which these viruses can function as vaccines is hugely important in contemporary times," said study co-author and evolutionary geneticist Hendrik Poinar, director of the Ancient DNA Center at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

"This work points to the importance of looking at the diversity of these vaccine strains found out in the wild. We don't know how many could provide cross-protection from a wide range of viruses, such as flus or coronaviruses," said Poinar, a principal investigator at the university's Institute for Infectious Disease Research.

In this study, researchers reconstructed and analysed the genomes of smallpox virus fragments recovered from vaccination kits used during the Civil War era. They were able to do this without damaging the artefacts.

Lead researcher Ana Duggan is a former postdoctoral student in the department of anthropology at McMaster, who is now at the Public Health Agency of Canada. "Vaccination is a wonderful process with a rich medical history that we should celebrate," she said in a university news release.

"Medical museums are incredible repositories of our past and of our collective history. The new tools we develop in this work allow us to begin to investigate how medical sources, procedures and techniques have changed through time," Duggan added.

Image credit: Unsplash

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