Over the last few months, there’s been an increase in discussions that we just have to learn to live with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Now a new study suggests that it might be possible to eradicate the virus from the face of the Earth.
The work, published in the British Medical Journal Global Health looked at 17 factors that influence how realistic such a goal is. Among them, are technical variables such as the availability of safe and effective vaccines and the length of the immunity. But there are also social, political, and economic factors, such as effective government management and public acceptance of infection control measures.
Each of these factors was scored on a three-point system. This was to give an idea of whether the eradication of SARS-CoV-2 is feasible as they define it: "[the] permanent reduction to zero of the worldwide incidence of infection caused by a specific agent as a result of deliberate efforts.” This has only been achieved for smallpox and for two of the three versions of the poliovirus.
The researchers actually compare the COVID-19 virus to smallpox and polio and found that getting rid of COVID for good would be more difficult than the eradication of smallpox but easier than getting rid of polio. On their scale, smallpox gets an average value of 2.7 while COVID-19 is at 1.6. Polio is at 1.5.
“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 wrote in the paper.
But while it may be possible, it is not at all certain that it could happen without political will, monetary investments, and a social understanding of why it matters to protect other people. It would not be an easy task but would save hundreds of thousands of lives and stop millions from developing long-COVID.
“The technical challenges of COVID-19 eradicability (relative to smallpox and polio) include poor vaccine acceptance, and the emergence of more variants that may be more transmissible or have greater immuno-evasion, potentially allowing vaccine escape so they can outrun global vaccination programmes,” the authors continued.
“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’.”
The authors call for more work to be done on the feasibility of eradication from the World Health Organization or a coalition of countries' health organizations.