“The University is under quarantine now, and no one is allowed in or out without a pass,” wrote a student to his mother during the summer of 1918.1 Back then, school closures, bans on public gatherings and face masks were commonplace. The measures used today to stop the spread of COVID-19, which feel almost unprecedented, were the very same methods used to contain the 1918 influenza pandemic.
The parallels between these 100-years-apart pandemics do not end at the interventions of social distancing and mask control but extend even to the field of pandemic-driven vaccine development. In a lesser-known part of U.S. history, researchers and healthcare workers at war with the 1918 pandemic were designing their own vaccines and immunizing thousands of people against the presumed causative agent of influenza.2
The idea of vaccination and that individuals could be exposed to weakened versions of pathogens to fight disease had already been explored and proven as early as the 19th century with the smallpox vaccine.3 Thus, scientists in 1918 were confident that they could develop a vaccine against the causative agent of influenza.
About the author: Isabel Fernandez is an MD/PhD candidate at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. She has studied pediatric immune deficiencies for her doctoral thesis, and she hopes to continue conducting research in tandem with clinical practice. In addition to her research efforts, Fernandez is a strong proponent of diversity and inclusion at CU by serving as a volunteer mentor in the CU Anschutz Medical Scientist Training Program and on the executive board of SACNAS (Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science), SNMA (Student National Medical Association) and the MD/PhD admissions committee.
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Unfortunately, the tools available nearly 100 years ago only allowed scientists to grow bacteria, and as we know today, influenza is caused by a virus. Nevertheless, the efforts of vaccine developers during the 1918 pandemic not only propelled the discovery of the true etiology of influenza, but also established the first professional standards to prepare vaccine trials.2 As a result, the influenza pandemic of 1918 pushed society to overcome unexpected challenges in the field of vaccine development, which transformed modern medicine thereafter.
Observed through the contemporary lens of COVID-19 today, healthcare workers and scientists have continued to rise to the challenges posed by a new pandemic, all while discovering their own limitations and fighting back with creative mitigation strategies.
Yet, perhaps what is most notable but often overlooked during the current pandemic, is the new way in which science is being conducted. Never before has such a magnitude of scientists from different parts of the world and in countless areas of study pivoted from their usual “disease models” to work on a single topic with such urgency.
The academic world is riddled with competition; however, during this pandemic scientists have set aside the normal standards of confidentiality and academic recognition to exchange data and ideas online through repositories and forums.4 For instance, shortly after the first case of COVID-19 was reported, a Chinese laboratory made the initial viral genome public online, and within hours, researchers around the world began combing through the data to develop the basis for what would become the molecular test for COVID-19.
Never before has such a magnitude of scientists from different parts of the world and in countless areas
of study pivoted from their usual “disease models” to work on a single topic with such urgency.
It was the willingness of the international scientific community to collaborate and mobilize rapidly, in part, that accelerated the development of the COVID-19 vaccine. Prior to 2020, the fastest any vaccine had been developed was four years – with the mumps vaccine in the 1960s.5 Hence, no one expected a successful vaccine could be generated within a year of the start of the pandemic. Even then, the expectations for the level of efficacy were low since vaccine efficacy against other respiratory viruses like the flu is about 10 to 60 percent.6
But, the resulting efficacy succeeded expectations, and the numerous multi-institutional clinical trials around the globe swiftly provided safety and efficacy data for COVID-19 vaccination.7 Of course, the mRNA technology that led to the development of the COVID-19 vaccine did not occur overnight; rather, it was the result of 10 to 15 years of basic science research that preceded the pandemic. Ultimately, it was the culmination of decades of research and the collective efforts across institutional boundaries that facilitated the historic success of COVID-19 vaccines.
Therefore, not only have researchers transformed the landscape of the pandemic, but the pandemic itself has transformed the global research environment. A new and dynamic scientific field has evolved due to this pandemic – one that requires cooperation, but above all else, communication between scientists as well as the general public.
As an aspiring physician-scientist, I can’t help but feel excited by this transformation in the world of science. The influenza pandemic of 1918 taught us to learn from our challenges, setbacks and failures. The current COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of those lessons from over a century ago, while reinforcing the idea that science relies on the gradual accumulation of knowledge, and that process is accelerated by collaboration.
Despite the level of immense tragedy accumulated during these global infectious events, some hope has been created by the beginning of this global scientific partnership, which has demonstrated the true power of resilience and working together on a common scientific goal.
- Young CE, Angeles L. Collection of personal narratives , manuscripts and ephemera about the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic , 1917-1923. 2011;1575(310):1917-1923.
- Eyler JM. The fog of research: Influenza vaccine trials during the 1918-19 pandemic. J Hist Med Allied Sci. 2009;64(4):401-428. doi:10.1093/jhmas/jrp013
- J. Abrams HS. Compared to Polio and Smallpox, America’s COVID-19 Vaccination Campaign Is Going Great. Time. 2021. https://time.com/6126442/covid-vaccine-hesitancy-polio-smallpox/.
- Haseltine WA. How COVID Changed Science. Sci Am. 2021. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-covid-changed-science/.
- Ball P. The lightning-fast quest for COVID vaccines - and what it means for other diseases. Nature. 2021;589(7840):16-18. doi:10.1038/d41586-020-03626-1
- Zhang S. The Coronavirus Is Here Forever. This Is How We Live With It. Atl. 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2021/08/how-we-live-coronavirus-forever/619783/.
- COVID research: a year of scientific milestones. Nature. 2021;(May). doi:10.1038/d41586-020-00502-w