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Lessons from history: How to build a vaccine

The 2000 years it took to develop the world’s first vaccine should temper expectations for an imminent coronavirus breakthrough
Lessons from history: How to build a vaccine

In the 1700s Lady Sarah Montague, six death row inmates in Newgate prison and eight-year-old James Phipps shared a common experience. In 1992, that same experience was endured by a group of HIV-negative volunteers with a history of injected drug use, and again by a German researcher operating out of a biosafety lab in Hamburg in 2009. They were all exposed to particles of an infectious disease in an experiment that aimed to inoculate mass populations. In 2020, such experiments are rarely far from anyone’s mind and they are known as vaccine trials.

James Phipps was in fact the very first human to be given a vaccine. He was the gardener’s son in the English village where Edward Jenner was conducting his research into smallpox and in 1796, he was injected with a sample of cells from a milkmaid who had contracted cowpox. Dr Jenner anticipated that immunity to cowpox – a mild virus – would allow humans to build up immunity to the disease’s far more vicious cousin, smallpox.

James developed a few localised pock-marks and a mild fever after his inoculation, but made a full recovery. And so, a few weeks after his initial injection, he was exposed to the far more deadly disease, smallpox. He didn’t develop any symptoms. Dr Jenner called his discovery a vaccine (after the Latin word for cow from which the cowpox illness had originated) and published a paper which set a precedent for immunisation in the 21st century.

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