Fairly early on in what became the global pandemic of the novel (new) coronavirus known as Covid-19, debate turned to finding a cure. I remember wondering about that at the time, because, well, the common cold is a set of coronaviruses, and there hasn’t been much luck in finding a cure for that, has there?
With my zero knowledge of epidemiology, I wondered whether a cure for coronavirus was even possible. The Wikipedia entry for the common cold notes that there is no cure, and that cold infections have existed throughout human history:
There is no vaccine to protect against the common cold. Vaccination has proven difficult as there are many viruses involved and they mutate rapidly.
Sound familiar? Indeed. It turns out that the products of the massive global search for a vaccine to prevent Covid have so far been less than successful.
The vaccines we have (and yes, FFS get vaccinated with all haste) do not prevent Covid-19. They provide limited protection. If you have been vaccinated, your symptoms will likely be fewer if you get infected and you are much less likely to die.
A few weeks ago we got into a debate here on TDB about this. I pointed out that, when I was young, we got vaccinated to prevent infection by disease. Polio, smallpox, measles, rubella and so on have all been tamed, to an extent, by childhood vaccination. In most cases the aim of vaccination was eradication.
The eradication of smallpox is one of the biggest success stories of a postwar global health initiative. It makes for very familiar reading: isolation of cases, ring-fencing areas of infection plus strong programmes of vaccination.
(One interesting thing I learned in my little study of smallpox was that it was used as a biological warfare agent by British troops against Native Americans in the 1750s. The Brits may also have used the virus in this way against indigenous tribes in New South Wales, but this view is disputed) (Gee the history of smallpox is fascinating).
So what I am coming to is that attempts to develop a vaccine to overcome Covid-19 has not, to date, been very successful. Get vaccinated. It is the best we can do. But there are several things we need to face up to:
- Coronaviruses mutate really fast and are very smart at evading immunity. I have already raised concerns about the ‘petri dish’ that is the UK, where very high rates of vaccination are co-existing alongside very high levels of community transmission. The most likely outcome is one or more vaccine-evading variants.
- Recent research has shown that while the vaccine reduces the effects of Covid infection, it does not reduce transmissibility. In English, this means you have just as much viral load as you would have had without the vaccine and are just as likely to pass it on. Thus vaccination plus masks and social distancing are important and will be for the foreseeable future.
- Imagine how many people would die if the common cold were deadly. This nightmare scenario is basically what we potentially face with Covid over time. A vaccine that cannot be stopped and kills, say one in five (the smallpox figure, roughly speaking). It must be our goal to prevent this. But the global will that existed to eliminate smallpox does not yet exist with Covid. Our global policies are essentially being run by free marketeers.
I didn’t mean to get so gloomy. Huge amounts of work is going on around the world to find longer-term solutions to Covid 19. At its most hopeful, a new vaccine could be able to train the human disease response to recognise and eliminate all coronaviruses, thus eliminating Covid and many versions of the common cold (I am aware I am veering madly from despair to hope, but such is the human condition).
In the meantime, we are back to the usual role of humans on this planet. Live with what we have. Try to survive and prosper. Try not to make things worse. We have bought ourselves some time with our elimination strategy in New Zealand and have a number of advantages over other countries. We should not blow these on ill-informed or mischievous interpretations of the world.
In the end, history will not judge us on when our restaurants re-open or we can get a good cup of coffee again. We will be judged on the endurance of the human spirit and our determination to survive the Covid pandemic, and the use of science and technology to outwit this silent enemy.
As a postscript, like many people I got a really nasty version of the common cold this winter. It lasted a couple of weeks and had many nasty symptoms. I am therefore in favour of the cold elimination strategy along with Covid!
Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society. She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.