The past 50 years have introduced AIDS, Avian flu, SARS, MERS, Ebola, and Zika. For decades, scientists have warned about the inevitability of a new global respiratory pandemic, possibly involving the novel virus. A 2016 article in the International Journal of Infectious disease stated that “emerging zoonotic viruses present persistent threats to global health, and a collaborative transboundary approach is needed for early detection of zoonotic viruses that have high potential to spread among humans.” In 2019 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services carried out a pandemic exercise which imagined a flu pandemic starting in China and spreading around the world and predicted that 586,000 people would die in the US alone.
The Black Death: quarantine
The Black Death, which hit Europe in 1347, claimed 200 million lives in four years. Although scientific understanding of disease was centuries away, people understood that the disease was spread through proximity. Officials in the Venetian-controlled port city of Ragusa kept newly arrived sailors in isolation on their ships for 30 days, which became known in Venetian law as a trentino. When the forced isolation was extended to 40 days it was a “quarantino,” which is the origin of the word quarantine, and its practice today during epidemics.
The plague continued to impact Europe with approximately 40 outbreaks during the next 300 years, and is estimated to have killed 30% to 60% of Europe’s population. To enforce quarantine, victims were sometimes forcibly shut into their homes.
Smallpox: the vaccine
During the 20th century, it is estimated that smallpox was responsible for 300–500 million deaths. Even as late as the 1950s an estimated 50 million cases of smallpox occurred in the world each year. In December 1979, after successful vaccination campaigns occurred throughout the world, the WHO certified the global eradication of smallpox.
In 1799, Harvard professor Benjamin Waterhouse obtained a strain of the cowpox vaccine that was being used against smallpox by Dr. Edward Jenner of London, who is regarded as the founder of immunology, and successfully inoculated members of his household. After at first refusing requests from other doctors for samples of the vaccine, Waterhouse began providing the material to individual practitioners in return for a quarter of their profits. Dr. Thomas Manning of Ipswich broke Waterhouse’s monopoly when he received a sample of “the matter” from his brother in London and began providing it to other practitioners without payment.
In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson declared vaccination with Jenner’s discovery to be one of the nation’s first public health priorities. By the mid-19th century, despite a persistent anti-vaccination movement, Jenner’s vaccine had replaced the earlier practice of inoculation with smallpox scabs, dramatically replacing mortality rates. In 1855 Massachusetts became the first state to require public-school children to be vaccinated, and within a few decades, most of the other states followed.
The Spanish Flu: donated plasma
The Spanish flu (also known as the 1918 flu pandemic) was one of the deadliest pandemics in human history, estimated to have killed between 17 and 50 million people, possibly as high as 100 million people world-wide.
In 1901 the first Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine was awarded to Emil von Behring for developing a “diphtheria antitoxin” which worked by injecting sick patients with antibodies taken from animals who had recovered from the disease. This was the earliest example of treating patients with “convalescent plasma,” today known as donated plasma.
A retrospective analysis in 2006 of the Spanish Flu epidemic indicates that transfusion of influenza-convalescent human blood products reduced mortality in patients complicated by severe pneumonia. Analysis of records from the same hospitals or wards show that the overall case-fatality rate was 16% among treated patients and 37% among those who were not treated. The fatality rate was 40% higher among patients who received treatment four or more days after pneumonia complications set in.
Science is real
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has become the scientific voice about how to respond to the coronavirus, and has been tasked with the President’s misleading statements.
On March 6, President Trump said about the coronavirus, “I just think this is something that you can never really think is going to happen. It’s an unforeseen problem…it came out of nowhere.” Two weeks later on Thursday March 19 he reiterated, “Nobody knew there would be a pandemic or epidemic of this proportion…there’s never been anything like this in history.” “People are really surprised I understand this stuff,” Trump claimed, “Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability.”
Sources and further reading:
- Potential Use of Convalescent Plasmas During a Flu Pandemic
- Arturo Casadevall and Liise-anne Pirofski: The convalescent sera option for containing COVID-19
- WBUR: Treatment Pioneered In 1918 Could Save COVID-19 Patients
- History Channel: How 5 of History’s Worst Pandemics Finally Ended
- Luke TC, Kilbane EM, Jackson JL, Hoffman SL. Meta-analysis: convalescent blood products for Spanish influenza pneumonia: a future H5N1 treatment?
- Origins Magazine; Jim Harris: Rash Decisions: Anti-vaccination Movements in Historical Perspective
- C. W. Dixon, “Smallpox“
- The Hill: Trump budget chief holds firm on CDC cuts amid virus outbreak