Vaccines: a key scientific discovery

Ayushman – Year 12 Student

Editor’s Note: Ayushman (Year 12) entered this short essay in The Oxford Scientist Schools’ Writing Competition. The brief was to write in no more than 700 words about ‘a scientific discovery, invention or advance that still affects the world today.’ Given the current challenge that we face in searching for a coronavirus vaccine, Ayushman’s choice of topic is highly appropriate. This is Ayushman’s second article to be published in The GSAL Journal: read more from Ayushman here. CPD

Vaccines contain a dead or attenuated form of a pathogen which is administered into the body to produce an immune response (by creating memory cells against the specific antigen) to immunise the patient from certain infectious diseases in the future.

The vaccine was first invented in 1796 by Edward Jenner, to immunise against the disease smallpox – which caused severe and often fatal blistering of the whole body. During the 18th century, smallpox killed around 400,000 people per year in Western Europe and had a fatality rate of 30% (WHO) (around ten times the mortality rate estimate for COVID-19 by the WHO). Jenner observed upon interaction with milkmaids that those milkmaids with cowpox (a weaker strain of disease similar to smallpox – from cattle) didn’t get infected with smallpox. Thus, in May 1796, Jenner applied this observation by inoculating his gardener – a boy called James Phipps – with cowpox pus from the hand of a milkmaid – Sarah Nelmes (who had gotten the disease from a cow named Blossom). Six months later, Jenner injected Phipps with the variolous material from a smallpox blister, but Phipps showed no sign of infection. Jenner repeated this and observed that Phipps, again, didn’t show any sign of having contracted smallpox. Thus, Jenner concluded that he had successfully vaccinated Phipps (vaccinate coming from the Latin for cow ‘vacca’). Soon after, the British government made vaccines compulsory (despite vehement religious opposition claiming that this was ‘playing God’), catalysing the development of vaccines to cure other diseases. Louis Pasteur evolved on Jenner’s work to create a vaccine for anthrax and rabies. In short, Jenner’s smallpox vaccine not only propelled the eventual eradication of smallpox in 1980 but spurred development of other vaccines – such as that of anthrax. So great was Jenner’s impact at that time that even Napoleon granted Jenner’s wish to release two English soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars – stating that he couldn’t refuse anything to “one of the greatest benefactors of mankind”. Thus, Jenner paved the way forward for modern immunology – his adherence to careful observation and recording methods were replicated with success by others – who found new vaccines themselves.

Edward Jenner among patients in the Smallpox and Innoculation. [Wikipedia Commons: labelled for resuse.]

The idea of vaccination now is more relevant than ever, with scientists at Oxford University trialling a vaccine for COVID-19. The vaccine (currently being trialled) injects patients with an attenuated form of the common cold (adenovirus), which has been altered by adding genetic material from the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virion. However, some patients are being injected with an ‘active control’ vaccine – that for Meningitis – which mimics the expected side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine. This ensures that patients are unaware of which vaccine they have been injected with (unlike in the case of a standard saline control – with no side effects). This prevents patients’ behaviour being affected by the knowledge of which vaccine they’ve been infected with – reducing the scope for bias in the study. Notwithstanding of the results of this study, finding a vaccine for COVID-19 is pivotal to allow normality to fully resume (finding a vaccine is the final condition of the ‘exit strategy’ of many countries) – hence the timescale needed to mass-produce a successful vaccine may well dictate the timescale needed for normality to resume.

Thus, Jenner’s invention of the vaccine is relevant now more than ever – no doubt that if a COVID-19 vaccine does arise, it shall come out of careful adherence to the scientific method (detailed observations and recording) – just as Jenner practiced nearly three centuries ago to come up with the very first vaccine. Therefore, as modern science develops in the cause of finding the ever-important COVID-19 vaccine, we should remember the work of Edward Jenner – whose work was criticised by the masses and didn’t receive any government funding to develop his smallpox vaccine. Therefore, Jenner’s legacy is demonstrable through the relative lack of pandemics in our modern world – all thanks to a milkmaid named Sarah, a boy named James, and a cow named Blossom.

Ayushman 206262

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