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A Tale of Two Pandemics: The impact of Smallpox and COVID-19

Headshot of Dr. Deb N. ChakravartBy Angel Aguirre

York College’s Dr. Deb N. Chakravarti, in his recent talk at York, compared the current coronavirus pandemic to the devastating Smallpox outbreak that lasted thousands of years. Dr. Chakravarti dedicated the talk to Professor Ralph Steinberg, a York colleague who passed away in spring 2020, reportedly from the effects of coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

The talk emphasized the lessons to be learned from studying the Smallpox outbreak and what people should expect in the near future dealing with COVID-19. The event was co-sponsored by the Chemistry and Pharmaceutical Science Club.

Chakravarti covered several topics during the hour-long talk, sharing insight on the Smallpox outbreak and how “The eradication was one of the biggest public health achievements in history.” The veteran chemistry professor compared it to COVID-19 and the impact that has had globally.

Professor Chakravarti addressed how the growing numbers of the pandemic’s victims led to multiple vaccines being created when it typically takes a few years to create a safe solution. He finished the discussion with general advice about COVID-19 and how to deal with it going forward.

“There are only two diseases that have been eradicated from the world,” said Chakravarti. “Only one of them is a human disease, which is Smallpox.”

The Smallpox disease was one of the deadliest viruses in human history. Chakravarti talked about how the virus claimed 300-500 million lives in the thousands of years it existed. In some ways it is similar to COVID-19,

“The virus can be transmitted through contact with an infected individual or objects touched by an infected individual,” says Chakravarti, adding that this left a long-term effect on millions of people, dealing with the loss of family members or lifetime side effects after contracting it.

He said two major symptoms of Smallpox included a high fever with small swellings covering the body. For some people, it covered a majority of their body and altered their appearance.

“Death occurs in about 30% of all Smallpox cases,” said Chakravarti. “If it did not kill its victims, it scarred and disfigured them for life.”

The first Smallpox vaccine was discovered by Edward Jenner in 1796. Chakravarti notes how it took 181 years for the vaccine to fully eradicate Smallpox by 1977. However, he also states that scientists had to devise a different method to deliver the vaccine to people all over the world.

The “Bifurcated needles” were shaved down to sewing needle-size that were formed into a certain shape to hold the vaccine. According to Chakravarti, this method quadrupled the vaccine supply, allowing for doctors to now have a re-useable needle that could be used 100 times before discarding. He also revealed that “60 million of these needles were used for the eradication of Smallpox.”

When looking at COVID-19, delivering a vaccine will be something timely as the rate of infection continues to rise at a fast pace.

Comparatively, there are already 69 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 around the world according to the World Health Organization (WHO). There are 1.58 million confirmed deaths globally and more than 300,000 in the United States, as of the latest report. These numbers are a cause for concern globally because of how easily humans can transmit the virus from one to another.

Chakravarti discussed how vaccines typically take years of research and testing before clinical trials. Although, he also stated that there are already 10 vaccines that have reached the final stages of testing since it started in March 2020.

Chakravarti noted in the discussion that “Due to the pandemic, scientists are racing to produce a safe and effective vaccine by 2021.” Of course, this does not mean that all vaccines will be accurate because it has still been less than a year of dealing with COVID-19 around the world.

“Some trials will fail; some may not provide a clear result; a handful may be successful in stimulating the immune system to produce effective humoral (antibodies) and cellular immune responses against the virus,” said Chakravarti.

Highly populated areas like New York City are already expected to receive a vaccine in the near future to try to control the infection rates from spreading. In addition, the professor also gave some personal knowledge to his virtual audience, explaining how certain methods may, or may not be efficient.

“Particles are so small that not even N95 mask can stop it,” said Chakravarti. “But, with the mask it stops the liquid and minimizes your risk.”

Although socially distancing six feet from people is recommended, that method is not always efficient according to Chakravarti. He explained how Standing six feet from someone else could still be a contributing to transmission of the virus due to the air circulating in a small area.

Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic can be difficult for some. However, Chakravarti’s connection between the past and present provided a clear understanding of what the world is experiencing now. Comparing and contrasting the statistics between the Smallpox outbreak and COVID-19, it is important to understand how serious coronavirus is and to take the proper precautions to minimize the chances of getting the disease.

Editor’s note: at press time two vaccines have been released and is being administered to frontline workers such as hospital employees starting with doctors and nurses. Thus far, negative side effects have been minimal.

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