We should not dismiss the possibility of eradicating COVID-19: comparisons with smallpox and polio

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Summary box

  • With the success of public health and social measures (PHSMs) at eliminating COVID-19 in several jurisdictions, combined with the arrival of safe and highly effective vaccines, the question is raised: is global eradication of COVID-19 feasible?

  • Our scoring for eradicability suggests that COVID-19 eradication might be slightly more feasible than for polio (although only two of three serotypes eradicated to date), but much less so than smallpox.

  • The main challenges are probably around achieving high vaccination coverage and the potential need to update vaccine designs. Yet an advantage for COVID-19 eradication, over that for smallpox and polio, is that PHSMs can complement vaccination. There is also very high global interest in COVID-19 control due to the massive scale of the health, social and economic burden.

  • There is a need for a more formal expert review of the feasibility and desirability of attempting COVID-19 eradication by the WHO or coalitions of national health agencies.

Introduction

Elimination and eradication of disease are among the ultimate goals of public health1 (for definitions see box 1). Vaccination has globally eradicated smallpox, rinderpest (a cattle disease that caused famines2) and two of the three serotypes of poliovirus.3 Three other vaccine-preventable diseases are eradicable globally with current technology,4 with measles the leading contender and with MMR vaccination potentially eradicating mumps and rubella at the same time. Some other diseases are close to being eradicated but without use of vaccines such as with the Guinea Worm Eradication Programme.5 Similarly, China has recently eliminated malaria with a range of non-vaccination tools, to become the 40th country to be certified malaria-free.6

Box 1

Definitions of key disease control terms from the Dahlem Workshop19

  • Control: The reduction of disease incidence, prevalence, morbidity or mortality to a locally acceptable level as a result of deliberate efforts; continued intervention measures are required to maintain the reduction. Example: diarrhoeal diseases.

  • Elimination of disease: Reduction to zero of the incidence of a specified disease in a defined geographical area as a result of deliberate efforts; continued intervention measures are required. Example: neonatal tetanus.

  • Elimination of infections: Reduction to zero of the incidence of infection caused by a specific agent in a defined geographical area as a result of deliberate efforts; continued measures to prevent re-establishment of transmission are required. Example: measles, poliomyelitis.

  • Eradication: Permanent reduction to zero of the worldwide incidence of infection caused by a specific agent as a result of deliberate efforts; intervention measures are no longer needed. Example: smallpox.

  • Extinction: The specific infectious agent no longer exists in nature or in the laboratory. Example: none.

Is COVID-19 also potentially eradicable? Or is it inevitably endemic having established itself across the world? Commentators have focused on the challenges of reaching population (herd) immunity,7 yet population immunity is not essential and was not achieved for smallpox, which was eradicated through ring vaccination.

As proof of concept for COVID-19 eradication, several countries and jurisdictions have achieved elimination without vaccination, using new and established public health and social measures (PHSMs) (eg, border control, physical distancing, mask wearing, testing and contact tracing supported by genome sequencing).8 Successful jurisdictions have included those with vast land borders such as China, high population densities such as Hong Kong,9 but also island nations such as Iceland and New Zealand, although with occasional outbreaks from border control failures that have been brought under control.10

Comparisons with smallpox and polio for eradicability

To make comparisons between smallpox, polio, and COVID-19, we consider established technical factors that favour the eradicability of vaccine-preventable diseases, published in 19994 (table 1). To this list we added additional technical, socio-political, and economic factors that are likely to favour achieving eradication. On our scoring for eradicability using a three-point relative scale across 17 variables, the mean (total) scores were smallpox at 2.7 (43/48), then COVID-19 at 1.6 (28/51), and finally polio at 1.5 (26/51) (table 1). 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.

Table 1

Factors favouring the eradicability of vaccine-preventable diseases with comparisons between smallpox, polio and COVID-19 (graded for the relative strength of favourability in supporting eradication*)

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.11 Nevertheless, there are of course limits to viral evolution, so we can expect the virus to eventually reach peak fitness12 and new vaccines can be formulated.

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’.13

Another concern is the risk of the persistence of the pandemic virus in non-human animal reservoirs. However, wild animal infections with SARS-CoV-2 appear to be fairly rare to date,14 and when companion animals become infected they do not appear to re-infect humans.15 Infections among farmed animals could potentially be controlled by quarantining and culling. Furthermore, COVID-19 vaccines for domestic animals are being developed (as they were for the eradication of rinderpest2) and oral vaccine in bait has effected successful regional elimination of rabies in wild foxes.16 Furthermore, the problem of Guinea worm infection in domestic dogs has not stopped the global eradication efforts for that disease,5 since various non-vaccination control measures can be successfully used in dogs.

On the other hand, the massive scale of the health, social and economic burden from COVID-19 in most of the world means that there is unprecedented global interest in disease control and massive investment in vaccination against the pandemic. There is also the advantage for COVID-19 eradication over these other diseases in that PHSMs can be highly effective and can complement vaccination. The upgrading of health systems to facilitate COVID-19 eradication could also have large co-benefits for controlling other diseases (and indeed eradicating measles as well). 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.

Potential next steps

The preliminary assessment we have performed indicates the value of further work on the potential for the eradication of COVID-19. This work would ideally be done by the WHO, but failing that it could be done by coalitions of national-level agencies working collaboratively. Any expert review needs to consider two main questions: (1) Could sustained COVID-19 eradication be technically feasible with currently available technologies? (2) Should eradication be attempted based on its desirability in terms of benefits versus costs (which provides the context of opportunity cost) and the risk of failure? It should also take a more sophisticated approach than we have by giving the different categories weights and also by making comparisons with measles, where elimination has been achieved at times for large regions (eg, the Americas17) and which is potentially eradicable.5 Modelling work that integrates both the health and economic aspects of COVID-19 control (as per recent work in Australia18) should also inform the decision-making processes.

Conclusions

In this very preliminary analysis, COVID-19 eradication seems slightly more feasible than for polio, but much less so than for smallpox. There is a need for a more formal expert review of the feasibility and desirability of attempting COVID-19 eradication by the WHO or other agencies.

Data availability statement

All data relevant to the study are included in the article.

Ethics statements

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