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Tougher than smallpox, but more feasible than polio — study pushes for eradicating Covid

Study published in BMJ Global Health compares eradication of smallpox and polio to possibility of eradicating Covid-19, argues that benefits outweigh the cost of working towards eradicating the pandemic.

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New Delhi: The possibility of eradicating Covid-19 is comparatively more feasible than it was for polio, a study published in the journal BMJ Global Health Tuesday claimed.

The researchers came to this conclusion by comparing three infections — smallpox, polio and Covid-19 — based on a combination of technical, sociopolitical, and economic factors.

According to the team, the main challenge that needs to be addressed is securing high vaccine coverage, and quick response as immune-escape variants evolve.

For the research, the team used a scoring system of 17 variables, such as availability of a safe and effective vaccine, immunity, impact of public health measures, effective government management of infection control messaging, social impacts of the infection, and public acceptance of infection control measures.

There is a global will to tackle the infection which has generated “unprecedented global interest in disease control and massive investment in vaccination against the pandemic,” the public health experts said.

Also read: ‘No more than 6 days to recover’ — Study in Lancet finds ‘long Covid’ rare in children

Covid tougher to eradicate than smallpox

The team of scientists behind the study, however, concluded that eradicating Covid would be tougher than eradicating smallpox.

Globally, smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980. Two out of the three serotypes of poliovirus have also been eradicated globally.

The average scores in the analysis added up to 2.7 for smallpox, 1.6 for Covid-19, and 1.5 for polio.

While the scores for polio and Covid are similar, subjective factors such as the global public health efforts make Covid possibly more feasible to eradicate.

“While our analysis is a preliminary effort, with various subjective components, it does seem to put Covid-19 eradicability into the realms of being possible, especially in terms of technical feasibility,” the authors said.

The study points out that compared to smallpox and polio, Covid-19 has lower vaccine acceptance. Along with this, newer, more transmissible SARS-CoV-2 variants that evade immunity have the potential to outrun the vaccination programmes.

“Nevertheless, there are of course limits to viral evolution, so we can expect the virus to eventually reach peak fitness, and new vaccines can be formulated,” they said.

“Other challenges would be the high upfront costs (for vaccination and upgrading health systems), and achieving the necessary international cooperation in the face of ‘vaccine nationalism’ and government-mediated ‘antiscience aggression’,” they added.

They also noted that the persistence of the virus in animal reservoirs may also thwart eradication efforts.

Public health measures can prevent spread

Unlike smallpox and polio, Covid-19 also benefits from the added impact of public health measures, such as border controls, social distancing, contact tracing, and mask-wearing, which can be very effective if deployed well, the study pointed out.

The upgrading of health systems to get rid of the virus could also aid the control of other infections and even help eradicate measles, it added.

“Collectively these factors might mean that an ‘expected value’ analysis could ultimately estimate that the benefits outweigh the costs, even if eradication takes many years and has a significant risk of failure,” the study further said.

The team, however, acknowledged that their study was at a preliminary stage, and requires more work.

Rather than assuming that Covid-19 will become endemic — that is, continue to recur as small breakouts in different parts of the world — the team suggested that the World Health Organization and national-level health agencies need to “formally review the feasibility” of attempting Covid-19 eradication.

(Edited by Paramita Ghosh)

Also read: ‘Accentuate’ vaccination for students & teachers to reopen schools, panel of MPs suggests


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