• The World Health Organization held a media briefing on 8 May to update the public on the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
  • WHO officials explained how lessons learned from the eradication of smallpox are essential in helping tackle COVID-19.

A vaccine alone won’t conquer COVID-19. That was the message from today’s World Health Organization (WHO) briefing, one held on the 40th anniversary of the eradication of smallpox. Lessons learned from containing that disease can help modern leaders and health officials tackle the new coronavirus.

Smallpox was a devastating virus that plagued the world for thousands of years, dating back to the 6th century. The disease spread across the globe with the expansion of trade and the growing interest in exploration.

It resulted in millions of deaths worldwide - 300 million in the 20th century alone, said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

By 1796, a vaccine was developed and available. However, the vaccine was not easily produced or distributed around the world. As a result, smallpox was still not eradicated until 1980.

“Although a vaccine was crucial for ending smallpox, it was not enough on its own,” said the Director-General.

Eradication would require cooperation and support that was for long difficult to build. For instance, a plan to eradicate smallpox was launched by the WHO in 1959. Those efforts were stymied by a lack of funds, vaccine access and cooperation from countries.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

A new effort was launched in 1967: the Intensified Eradication Program. By this point, the disease had been eliminated in North America and Europe, but outbreaks still plagued parts of South America, Africa and Asia.

A turning point came during the Cold War, as the Soviet Union and the United States came together to help eliminate disease, coordinating on strategy, logistics and vaccine donations.

That collaboration was strengthened by a multi-prong approach that included ramping up vaccine production and access in impacted countries, training health-care staff and developing clear public health messages so that people could better protect themselves and their communities.

The effort also leveraged targeted techniques like "ring vaccination," whereby only those who had been in contact with an infected person were monitored and vaccinated.

The effort also required widespread cooperation, said the Director-General, and a first-of-its-kind global effort. “Viruses do not respect nations or ideologies," he added.

Image: Our World in Data

The fight against COVID-19 is leveraging many tools that conquered smallpox - such as disease surveillance and contact tracing. However, cooperation on a global scale will also be essential.

“That same solidarity,” said the Director-General, “is needed now more than ever to defeat COVID-19.”

Humanity's victory over smallpox is a reminder of what is possible when nations come together to fight a common health threat, he said. “The legacy of smallpox was not only the eradication of one disease. It was when the world unites...anything is possible.”