The corona pandemic has triggered what is probably the largest, but above all the fastest vaccination campaign in history. It promises a return to a life without the restrictions of the past few months. But not everyone shares this hope: some doubt the usefulness of the vaccine developed within a short time, even consider harmful effects to be possible or likely. A look at history shows that vaccines have brought amazing successes in the fight against many pathogens. Their development is a medical revolution, emphasizes Professor Benedikt Kaufer, virologist at Freie Universität Berlin. This year marks the 225th anniversary of one of these breakthroughs – and it succeeded against smallpox viruses.
A groundbreaking idea
Even at the end of the 18th century, they were considered one of the most dangerous diseases for humans. Humanity owes the fact that no one has to fear it today to an English country doctor – and Kuheuterpusteln. Edward Jenner observed 225 years ago that milkers befected with cowpox because they showed a characteristic rash on their hands. Otherwise, they did not suffer from any serious complaints. At the same time, he noticed that the milkers became immune to a far more dangerous type of smallpox that can be transmitted from person to person. Edward Jenner came up with the groundbreaking idea of deliberately infecting people with cowpox by applying infectious material. As a result, he suspects, the vaccinated could be permanently protected against human variola smallpox. The word “vaccine” goes back to this history of discovery. It is derived from the Latin name for cow – “vacca”.
The very first vaccination in history was given by Edward Jenner to the English farm boy James Phipps, according to historical sources. The doctor’s risky experiment was successful. However, it took a few more years before the new medically sensational method of vaccination could prevail. Many people were skeptical about the procedure, as virologist Benedikt Kaufer explains. “You couldn’t explain the effect of the vaccine.” Modern knowledge about viruses, surface proteins, antibodies and the human immune response was still missing. But the success of the treatment convinced many doubters – mandatory vaccination against smallpox did the rest. For example, it was introduced in the then Kingdom of Bavaria in 1807. In 1980 – almost 200 years after the first vaccination – the World Health Organization declared smallpox viruses eradicated. “International vaccination campaigns thus achieved one of the greatest victories in human history,” emphasizes Benedikt Kaufer, “the eradication of a deadly viral disease that had been the cause of the deaths of many millions of people.”
“Medical research has made tremendous progress since Edward Jenner’s first vaccine – and has also advanced the development of novel vector, RNA or DNA vaccines against other diseases,” says the virologist.
However, the development process with several clinical test phases, which must meet high standards, is usually very lengthy. Usually, five to ten years passed before a preparation was approved. The costs were correspondingly high. In addition, vaccine studies are not always successful, for example in the case of the human immunodeficiency virus, which usually causes the disease AIDS. Theoretically, however, a vaccine or active ingredient can be found against all pathogens, explains Benedikt Kaufer. But many viruses and bacteria change more or less over time; this may also mean that vaccination protection may also be having.
The immune system trained by the vaccine can no longer recognize the altered pathogens so quickly and easily. “Most likely, mutations of the coronavirus SARS-COV-2 will occupy us even longer, despite the most intensive research efforts,” says the virologist. But mistrust of scientific findings is also a serious problem worldwide. Lack of knowledge, widespread misinformation and launched conspiracy theories can be reasons for skepticism about vaccinations.
“We are often unaware of the relatively carefree world in which we live. A multitude of dangerous diseases can no longer harm us,” emphasizes Benedikt Kaufer. Without vaccinations, many people would die earlier or live in then Consequences of infections suffer. The value of Edward Jenner’s cowpox experiments is therefore invaluable.