Dr Liz Gordon: The common cold and other coronaviruses


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).

TDB Recommends NewzEngine.com

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.


  1. An interesting article.
    I would add that plague, in its various forms, was for centuries considered just one of life’s innumerable hazards, along with war and famine.
    It was developing medical knowledge – of prevention and treatment – that eventually eliminated the chain of infection and re-infection and perhaps with our superior medical technology we can do the same with COVID-19.
    Maybe Dr McCoy’s hope of curing the common cold might eventually come true!
    Like you I have been battling a nasty cold for the last week.
    When it hit I imagined the worst and immediately got a COVID test (negative).

  2. Oh c’mon Liz,… if we look at the Spanish influenza, which killed more than the Black Death in the 14th century,…( 500,000,000 infections and around 120,000,000 deaths,) we see that the H1N1 virus did actually acquire other RNA amino acids and ‘morphed’, as it were into a far more less deadly and virulent form. In fact, it became the precursor to the flu pandemics of 1958-9 , 1967-68 , 1970, and the 2009 avian and swine flues,…in other words, the Spanish flu did not leave us but became an ‘ancestor ‘ to todays influenza.

    The Spanish flu started off as a mild variant in the autumn if 1918, its lethality and virulence low,… but by the spring of 1918, had ‘morphed’ into a deadly and most virulent form. It persisted in that way until 1920, with sporadic outbreaks throughout the 1920s, but for all intents and purposes ‘faded away’ during that decade. Without the aid of viral vaccines which were only cutting edge science at that time.

    And the point is this: that all of these viral outbreaks follow a parabolic curve whereby there is usually an incremental increase in virulence nd mortality, followed by a steady decrease in virulence and mortality as the virus takes on other similar viral RNA and becomes, in effect,… ‘watered down’. And this is even despite the intervention of modern vaccines.

    NOW,… in tandem with ‘elimination’ and starving the virus of ‘victims’,…and an extensive vaccine program,…we start to see the results of a slow but steady disinclination of the viruses most lethal form and also of its virulence.

    Covid 19 and its delta variant is in no way shape or form even comparable to Spanish influenza in its lethality but DOES have similarity’s to its viral load and infectiousness. BOTH have viral loads a thousand times stronger than its original form however Covid is far, far less deadly.

    Reconstruction of the extinct Spanish flu virus H1N1, in 1997 or thereabouts in an American military biological lab, by reconstructing plasmids to reorganize the original RNA sequence, demonstrated that the Spanish flu virus was not only incredibly virulent, but that it destroyed mice’s lung tissue rapidly, mimicking the same effects seen in humans in that time period.

    The tissue samples were of two deceased servicemen of that era who died from the Spanish flu and also from lung tissue that was obtained from the mass graves of the Inuit settlement of Brevick, Alaska in which 72 out of 80 adults died from Spanish influenza.

    the Discovery and Reconstruction of the 1918 Pandemic Virushttps://www.cdc.gov › flu › pandemic-resources › reco…

    I am trying to say there is hope, not despair. I do hope people draw strength from what I am relaying to you. C’mon people, we can overrule this thing!

  3. So? Since the Brits ( The greedy, psychopathic, scum bags! ) used Small Pox against native Americans it’s not entirely within the realms of science fiction that the Chinese cooked c-19 in Wuhan to protect themselves against British and American imperialist invasion. A virus which then escaped/was set free, woopsie daisy.
    If there are such lunacy’s abounding amongst those whom we assume are capable of taking care of world affairs on our behalf? If that’s the best we can expect from egomaniacal narcissists commonly known as ‘politicians’ ? Then not only should we close our borders we should build a 1000 meter high wall covered in electrified spikes all topped off with anti aircraft cannon and weaponised, interstellar, nuclear powered drones all the way around AO/NZ including Rakiura and The Chatham’s.

  4. Right Wingers and real men who are proud to be men ,,,could accuse you of being Woke and precious Dr Liz ,,,,

    Common sense tells them a good dose of “harden the fuck up pills” is all that’s required to make this country great again.

    Examples of freedom fighters pushing back against Jacindas anti-business Covid Marxisim are starting to appear for them ,,,,

    ,,”as the Westland mayor who recently demanded that we listen to business leaders instead of health experts. And also ‘learn to live with it’,”…..

    … Because in the good old days ,,,, before female Prime Ministers and stuff made us soft ,,, we could live with Polio.

    and no one cared for the current woke bullshit about drinking either … https://youtu.be/Kaq0Ym6OY_k

    😉 🙂 😉


    On a more serious note ,,,, NZ has grounds to call for this politicians sacking too ,,,, poisoning their public health and threatening ours ,,,,like neo-lib righties always do ,,,, https://youtu.be/ExkfAlICSVE

    • Really, reason? ”Real men” is a bit 1950s, isn’t it? And proud to be men? I think that’s good, as long as it doesn’t include a lot of very boring old views about women, gays, people of colour, Springbok tours and so on. There is definitely a history of masculinism in NZ (which Jock Phillips wrote about at length) that does not bear scrutiny. Slogans won’t do – you need to say what it is to be a good man today.
      Martyn and Chris go on about wokeness and I never really know what it means, but the people and views they describe aren’t mine, so I can’t be woke. I was also OK Karen’d in last week’s blog. I am just a blogger with views, and I try really hard not to be abusive to anyone. And I try to write analysis, not moaning complaints (I believe the key characteristics of the so-called karens is their tendency to complain).
      I suppose you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Some weeks my blogs don’t even please me, but I do the best I can!

      • Sorry Liz ,,,,, I’m often the only one to get my own joke’s ,,,, And my joke was on the term woke ,,, which I think is the new word for PC / politically correct.

        I was poking fun at the “proud to be a man” lot ,,,, aka John Key

        ,,, and on the Westland Mayor who probably grew up drunk and associates calipers with happy times / memories ,,,

        Real men don’t learn to live with Polio ,,,

        and Only right wingers seem stupid enough to ask business men for health advice.

        Your articles are well written and generally broaden my view on whatever your subject is.

        I on the other hand may give up attempting jokes in my writing ,,,, as a common result is people getting really mad at me….

        …. The problem is I find this funny 🙂

      • Bert- Me too. Pretty straight, honest and not sensation seeking. Does her research and makes you think, unlike some others who thrive on conflict, drama and stirring up controversy.

  5. Thanks Dr Liz, a wonderful very enlightening read. Who would of thought ‘germ warfare’ in the 1750’s, Colonial powers were/are a devious lot!

  6. Unfortunately the Chino’s are not cooperating, and they were reluctant to announce the problem when it was first identified. In fact they tried to hide it and started buying and importing PPE gear from other countries, along with trying to pervert the WHO ?

Comments are closed.