We have to thank all the cows out there for the Covid-19 vaccine. For any vaccine, in fact.
By the end of the 18th century, cows were periodically getting infected with the cowpox virus known as variola vaccinia, a virus of the Poxviridae family, which would pass to humans through contact with the cow’s udders.
In the 1790s, the English physician Edward Jenner observed that cowpox, though not life-threatening to humans, was very similar to the often lethal smallpox disease, which is perhaps the most ironic litotes in the history of virology. There’s nothing small about a disease that killed nearly 500 million people in the 20th century alone.
‘Holy Cow!’, Jenner exclaimed one day when he realised that infecting a person with cowpox protects them against smallpox. Fight fire with fire, or a blaze with a matchstick.
As the infected, yet heroic cows deserved all the praise, Jenner coined the term vaccination in 1796, from the scientific name of the disease, variola vaccinia, which had been coined in reference to the cow, vacca in Latin.
And vaccination sounds much better than cowification. Thank God for Latin.
The world’s first person to be vaccinated or cowified was an 8-year old boy named James Phipps. Jenner exposed little James to cowpox and allowed six weeks for the disease to take hold. Then Jenner tried more than twenty times to infect him with smallpox, but the boy didn’t fall ill. The correlation was then worked out into a theory, and the rest is history.
As the world is getting ready for the most daring inoculation – or ingrafting, from implanting a bud or an eye oculus of one plant into another – operation in history, we should do well to remember the cows, Jenner and little James. Till the cows come home.