On Wednesday, December 9, William Foege and Victor Zhdanov were recognized with the Future of Life award, honoring their crucial contributions to the eradication of smallpox. IGI Founder and President Jennifer Doudna; Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; and Bill Gates, whose Global Health Program has spent billions of dollars responding to infectious diseases, celebrated with a discussion on the history and future of vaccines.
Victor Zhdanov, when serving as the Deputy Minister of Health in the Soviet Union, convinced the World Health Assembly — and rivaling superpowers — to unite in an effort to eradicate smallpox, and persuaded the Soviet Union to donate a crucial 25 million doses of vaccine to developing countries. Bill Foege, a scientist at the CDC, developed surveillance strategies and the “ring vaccine” tactic that was ultimately successful in using the limited doses of vaccine available to contain and then eradicate the disease.
Zhdanov and Foege are “phenomenal examples of what it means to harness science for public health,” said Gates in pre-recorded statement. “The eradication of smallpox not only prevented unnecessary suffering and death, it showed the world that diseases can be defeated, and it reminds us of the need for global cooperation in fighting other diseases, such as COVID-19.”
“Science leads us to the development of policies that are directed to the preservation of the health and safety of the American public. Everything else is noise.” — Anthony Fauci
“The example of smallpox eradication is a model we all look to for what can be achieved in global public health,” said Doudna. “It couldn’t be more relevant in this year, 2020, when we find ourselves in the middle of a global pandemic, and, I hope, on the verge of eradicating the virus that’s causing it, the SARS-CoV-2 virus, with emerging vaccines.”
“The massive undertaking of taking one of the most devastating diseases in human history and not only controlling it, not only eliminating it, but actually eradicating it, stands as the standard, as Jennifer said, of what we hope to do with other diseases — with polio, with measles, and ultimately with SARS-CoV-2,” said Fauci.
The lessons of smallpox for COVID-19
Fauci highlighted how the work of Foege and Zhdanov showed the need for global cooperation.
“They teamed up in what appeared at the time to be a divisive and competing superpower,” said Fauci. “It’s no secret that we live in a divisive world right now… There are many lessons to be learned: that enormous as the problem is, you can counter it, you can overcome it, the way Bill and Victor did, despite the fact that politically you were in very problematic circumstances. I think it’s almost eerily similar to talk about the differences of what we’re doing now and what Bill and Victor did decades ago.”
This spirit of cooperation and relying on expertise needs to prevail closer to home, as well, Fauci and Doudna emphasized, noting the need for science, not politics, to lead the way.
“The goal of vaccinating the world against coronavirus is a big one and an immediate one that we’re facing,” said Doudna. “We need to rely on evidence-based science as we make public health decisions.”
But how do you keep from being affected by politics and the attacks on science that have been so common in 2020?
“What I try to do is focus like a laser beam on what my purpose and what my endgame is, and that is, right now, in the middle of an outbreak, the health and the safety of the American people — driven by evidence-based science,” said Fauci. “Science leads us to the development of policies that are directed to the preservation of the health and safety of the American public. Everything else is noise.”
Preventing the next pandemic
“I believe given what we know about the commonality of spike proteins” said Fauci, “Which are the major antigen or immunogen in the vaccine for coronaviruses, that it is attainable for us to develop what is called a universal coronavirus vaccine. Namely, a vaccine that is not only effective against the common cold coronaviruses of which there are four, effective against the three known pandemic coronaviruses – SARS, MERS, and now SARS-CoV-2 – but any coronavirus that might actually emerge in the future.”
And maybe if we follow in the footsteps of Foege and Zhdanov — with broad vision, tenacity, and global cooperation – we can get there.
Watch the full remarks from the 2020 Future of Life Award ceremony: