Infectious diseases have been with us since before recorded history. The lives of countless numbers of families have been forever altered by them. Diseases have changed the course of civilizations. As serious outbreaks occur, they cause us to be fearful, angry, and to confront our own mortality. They bring moral, spiritual, and political issues to the forefront. They stress and can break individuals, institutions, and societies.
But infectious diseases also bring forth much kindness, generosity, and innovation.
Hippocrates (460-370 B.C.), known as the father of medicine, and his followers were the first people to record diseases clearly enough that we would recognize them today as malaria, mumps, diphtheria, tuberculosis, tetanus, polio, and others.
The Black Death, caused by the plague, swept through Asia, Europe, and Africa in the 14th century (recent research indicates the Mongols may have unknowingly carried the plague through Central Eurasia in the 13th century). It killed as much as half the population, raging for 500-600 years. People fled their ill family members leaving them to suffer and die on their own. The Black Death was a zoonotic disease (an animal disease which transferred to humans), as is COVID-19.
The last major outbreak of the plague in the United States occurred in Los Angeles in 1924.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Europeans brought along smallpox, measles, and typhus to South and Central America. Epidemics resulted in the population of Mexico falling from 20 million to 3 million in the 50 years between 1518 and 1568.
Smallpox ravaged our Native American population when it hit the shores of North America in the 1600s.
Due to the scientific work of Edward Jenner in the 1770s a smallpox vaccine was developed. Since 1977 smallpox has been gone from our world. It was eradicated solely through vaccination.
The great flu of 1918-1919 led to 50 million deaths worldwide.
I personally have confidence in vaccines. I have been consistent in receiving my flu vaccine each year. Shingles does not seem like a great experience, so I have been vaccinated for that. My age indicates a recommendation for a pneumonia vaccine, so I have accomplished that also. I was ready and willing to receive my coronavirus vaccine as it became available to me.
I understand others are reluctant. I asked a couple of my friends whose profession is health care for their well-educated input.
Laurel Whittemore is a registered nurse and the Clinical educator for Valor Health in Emmett. She accepted a four-week tour of duty in a COVID-19-only Intensive Care Unit in Southern California in August of 2020.
Dr. Jim Thomson has practiced family medicine in Emmett for the past 37, almost 38, years.
Question: How could they develop these vaccines so quickly?
JT: We are seeing a miracle of modern science. The COVID virus was genetically sequenced a week after it was identified as a novel infectious disease. This was shared around the world. Most pharmaceutical companies started working promptly modeling from this genetic information and developing a safe vaccine.
LW: There are several reasons that this vaccine was able to be developed and implemented so quickly.
1 — We already had the groundwork in place from our efforts in developing two other coronaviruses in the last 20 years: SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003 and MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) in 2012. Most of the vaccine research was already done and simply needed to be completed using Covid-19 information. A great analogy for this would be developing a new cell phone. You do not need to start from scratch when making a new phone. We take an existing phone and make adjustments or updates to accommodate our needs.
2 — We have more advanced technology than we did even 10 years ago. Computers, software, lab equipment, DNA sequencing, and testing procedures have all made research faster and easier than it has ever been. The mRNA science that is used in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines has been studied for decades and was then ready to use when the pandemic hit. This is a perfect example of why research and development in diversified fields needs to continue all the time and not just in response to a crisis.
3 — Regulatory agencies reviewed that vaccine’s scientific information as it became available, not at the end of the trials as is typically done. Because this information could be evaluated and approved on a rolling basis, it greatly sped up the development process. The COVID vaccines still had to go through the clinical trials that are required of other vaccines to ensure they are safe. But how could those clinical trials get done so quickly? See #4.
4 — Finding and recruiting volunteers to participate in clinical trials can often be one of the most lengthy and difficult parts of the development process. We had ample volunteers willing to take part in the trials making that part of the process a weeks-long task, not months or years. We are fortunate that this pandemic was only a coronavirus. If it were a high mortality illness such as Ebola, this process would have been significantly more difficult. As it was, lots of people had COVID-19 and lots of people wanted to be part of the trials which lead to accelerated results.
5 — Lastly, because of the sheer numbers of people affected around the world, we had LOTS of people working on the vaccine at the same time. 10 scientists can accomplish much more than 1 scientist. 100 scientists can do even greater things in a shorter period. And so it was with scientists working together all around the globe and sharing information for the common good, not just their state or country. Companies that were normally competitors shared equipment, facilities, and most importantly, knowledge. What a great example of what can be accomplished when we work together.