London. US founding father Thomas Jefferson, the heads of the North American natives and even Napoleon worshipped him: 225 years ago, the English country doctor Edward Jenner provided the first proof of the effectiveness of vaccination. Since then, millions of lives have been saved in this way.
Jenner’s approach: A person becomes infected with a harmless disease and acquires immunity to a related pathogen. At that time, it was probably an infection with cowpox that protected against smallpox. The term vaccine is derived from the Latin vacca (cow).
On July 1, 1796, the country doctor from Berkeley, England, infected eight-year-old James Phipps with smallpox viruses after administering cowpox viruses to him a few weeks earlier. The attempt was risky – but it succeeded. Phipps proved immune to the dreaded disease.
“We use a person’s immune system to protect them”
Vaccines still work in a similar way today, as adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute at Oxford University, explains in an interview with the German Press Agency. But they are specifically designed for this purpose and are optimized to have few side effects and to protect them in the best possible way. Hill and his colleagues have developed the Astrazeneca vaccine against the coronavirus, which uses a cold virus in chimpanzees as a carrier of genetic material of the coronavirus. “We use a person’s immune system to protect them,” says Hill.
The realization that a knowingly induced infection can lead to immunity to disease is already very old. The so-called variolation was probably already carried out in medieval China. In the process, healthy people were rubbed small amounts of the contents of smallpox pustules into a induced wound. The hope was that they would develop a mild form of the disease and be immune for the future. But this did not always go well – quite a few fell seriously ill and sometimes entire outbreaks of a disease could be accidentally triggered.
Smallpox declared extinct only in 1980
Long unknown in the West, the method of variolation came to England from the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century. Jenner realized that she could be improved and had found a source for his experiment with a milker who had contracted the harmless cowpox in her cows. In a hut behind his house, which he christened “Temple of Vaccinia”, he opened the first vaccination clinic and made the method known worldwide. “They have wiped out one of the greatest scourges of mankind,” Thomas Jefferson later paid tribute to him.
But it would be more than 180 years before smallpox was actually eradicated. In 1967, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a worldwide vaccination campaign. Many people still wear the typical scar on their upper arm. In 1980, the WHO declared smallpox extinct. Today, only a few live smallpox viruses are kept in the laboratory for research purposes.
Still no effective vaccines against tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS
But despite the triumph against smallpox, there are still many other infectious diseases that claim millions of deaths every year. Among the worst killers are tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS, for which there are still no widely available and effective vaccines.
Hill and his colleagues have developed a malaria vaccine that meets WHO standards with over 75 percent effectiveness. But before it will be used nationwide, it is likely to take years. A lengthy approval process is required, which requires large-scale studies.
Given the speed with which the coronavirus vaccines were approved last year, Hill finds that inappropriate. In Africa, four times as many people died of malaria last year than of Covid-19, he says. Nevertheless, the disease is not treated with the same urgency. “What is the difference in importance when a child dies of malaria and an adult of Covid-19?” But the drug authorities tended to be conservative, sighs the professor. One is in conversation – outcome open.
Vaccine pioneer Jenner wasn’t about the money
In addition to the tough approval procedures, a lack of funds for the development of vaccines and a lack of production capacity are mainly responsible for the fact that does not move faster. “If you knew you could sell a tuberculosis vaccine for $100 a dose, all the big pharmaceutical companies would be doing it today,” Hill says. Research is in competition with other, less fatal ailments. But the deadliest infectious diseases occur mainly in less financially strong developing countries.
Vaccine pioneer Edward Jenner was never keen to make money from his discovery. “He just wanted people to know about it and wanted to pass it on,” Owen Gower, the director of the museum Dr. Jenner’s House in the former home of the country doctor in Berkeley, told the BBC. Jenner had the absolute will to save as many lives as possible.