From cows to coronavirus and the museum's collection.
Banner image: Copyright Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity 2020 Photographer: Dr Jason Roberts; Electron Microscopist: Dr Andrew Leis
Please note: this article features graphic images of people suffering from smallpox and measles.
Museums are used to collecting the artefacts of major world events but actively participating in them is not so common.
In 2021, the Melbourne Museum did just that—becoming a vaccination hub in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is the same building that houses extensive collections of medical breakthroughs, including vaccines developed over the last 100 years.
So, how has that history of vaccine development for previous pandemics shaped our response to this one?
And what will these new collections teach societies of the future?
A world without vaccines would be very different to the one we have today—and more dangerous.
Vaccines are ‘our single most important medical intervention that has saved more lives than anything else,’ says Professor Marc Pellegrini, joint division head of infectious disease and immune defence at WEHI.
In a nutshell, vaccines educate your immune system by stimulating an immune response without giving you the full disease.
This allows your immune system to recognise, and fight against, the real invader if you are ever exposed to it.
It is easy to take for granted just how vital these medical marvels have been for humankind in reducing child mortality and improving our quality and longevity of life.
When we really need vaccines, but don’t have them, we are incredibly vulnerable—a situation acutely felt with the outbreak of COVID-19.
With no other option, those early days of the pandemic necessitated a return to masks and physical distancing to reduce disease transmission.
It was a similar story 100 years ago during the 1918 influenza pandemic, commonly (but unfairly) referred to as the Spanish flu.
The major difference, though, is that scientists today know what they are fighting against.
Part of the vaccine history collection at Museums Victoria. Photo: Photographer: Michelle McFarlane/Museums Victoria
When the influenza pandemic first emerged at the end of World War I in 1918, no one understood what caused it.
‘Cinemas, schools, racecourses and even state borders were closed in an unsuccessful attempt to halt the spread,’ says Dr Johanna Simkin, senior curator of human biology and medicine at Museums Victoria.
‘Hospitals were overwhelmed, and Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building was turned into a temporary hospital.’
A vaccine was quickly developed, but scientists at this time didn’t know that influenza was caused by a virus.
The vaccine was instead made to target bacterial infections and did not address the virus.
It was not until 1933 that scientists first identified the flu virus in an H1N1-type strain.
H1N1 viruses have been behind everything from worldwide pandemics (including in 1918, 1977 and 2009) to seasonal flu.
‘The flu is one of those that is able to mutate quite easily,’ says Dr Simkin.
Scientists constantly monitor outbreaks at worldwide surveillance centres and alter vaccines accordingly: ‘That's why we all need to get our vaccines every year.’
And, as we will later learn, mutation of a pathogen can work both for and against us.
While it is impossible to know exactly how many died in the 1918-19 pandemic, estimates vary between about one and five per cent of the world’s population of 1.8 billion people.
If the same thing were to happen today, that would equate to nearly 400 million deaths—the combined populations of France and the USA.
So, it is a good thing we have become a lot better at making flu vaccines.
But that’s not to say all vaccines before the 1918 flu were impotent; the first vaccine ever created was so successful that we no longer have to worry about that disease at all.
Hospital beds line the Exhibition Building's great hall during the influenza pandemic in 1919. Photo: Museum Victoria
COVID-19 nearly brought the world to a standstill and has dominated daily aspects of our lives.
But as horrible as this disease is, smallpox was another matter entirely.
Once the ‘scourge of the human species’, the earliest physical evidence for smallpox is found in scars of mummified Egyptian pharaohs 3,000 years ago but it is believed to be much more ancient.
Patients would come down with a fever, flu-like symptoms and a distinctive skin rash that progressed to fluid-filled blisters.
It killed nearly a third of everyone it infected, and left survivors badly scarred.
Messengers from First Peoples clans travelled to warn their neighbours of the disease but, in doing so, unknowingly spread smallpox themselves.
It devastated entire communities, particularly along river systems.
Elderly people told European observers the death toll was so high in some cases that their dead could not be buried.
The first real attempt to fight against smallpox came in the form of variolation—the precursor to vaccination.
It involved exposing someone to the puss of a smallpox wound, hopefully giving them a mild case of the disease.
After they recovered, most would have long-lasting immunity but the variolation process carried its own risks.
So, when an English doctor named Edward Jenner discovered a more effective, and safer way, people really took notice.
‘Like all good scientific discoveries, it came about by accident,’ says Dr Simkin.
Jenner observed that milkmaids who had been infected with cowpox appeared immune to smallpox.
He tested this theory in 1796 by inoculating an eight-year-old farm hand, James Phipps, with cowpox before exposing him to smallpox.
Fortunately for James, and the rest of us, it worked.
Jenner named the treatment vaccination (from vacca, Latin for cow) and in 1801 wrote: ‘The annihilation of the smallpox, the most dreadful scourge of the human species, must be the final result of this practice’.
And Jenner was right in his prediction but it took 179 years and a concerted effort to get there.
His vaccine quickly spread around the world, replacing variolation as the preferred method of combatting smallpox.
Dr Jenner performing his first vaccination on James Phipps on 14 May, 1796, as painted by Ernest Board. Source: Wellcome Collection
‘That vaccine was incredibly brilliant,’ says Professor Pellegrini.
Keep in mind, this was more than 60 years before scientists established that disease was caused by microbes invading the body (germ theory).
Jenner himself had no idea of the minute scale on which his invention worked.
Scaling the invisible. Animator: Len Doublet, Museums Victoria.
Victoria introduced a Compulsory Vaccination Act in 1854, which largely mitigated the threat and prevented major outbreaks.
The country’s last confirmed case of smallpox was during World War I, but Australians continued to be vaccinated for decades thereafter—many people alive today still carry the tell-tale scar from their immunisation.
‘It’s really important to keep up vaccination levels until you're sure that the disease does not exist anymore,’ says Dr Simkin.
‘There’s a reason that we still have vaccine regimens for all kids and adults.’
According to the World Health Organisation: ‘Failure to eradicate polio from these last remaining strongholds could result in as many as 200,000 new cases every year, within 10 years, all over the world.’
And we have reason to be concerned about that possibility because when vaccination rates drop, some diseases come back with a vengeance.
Pertussis (or whooping cough) is wildly infectious, debilitating, and difficult to treat but, importantly, preventable.
An effective vaccine was first produced the 1940s and has been steadily improved since—it is now found in a combined vaccine with diphtheria and tetanus.
Unfortunately, the whooping cough vaccine has also been the target of the anti-vaccine movement which has caused the disease’s resurgence in several countries.
Pertussis seemed well under control up until the 1970s, when a misleading reportlinked the vaccine to neurological damage in children—a condition later proven not to be related to vaccines butinfantile epilepsy.
The United Kingdom, Sweden and Japan subsequently decreased their vaccination programs and all experienced whooping cough epidemics.
Australia’s vaccination rates followed suit, not because of a change in government policy but, because of misinformation.
‘Even a small decrease in vaccination rates can greatly influence infection,’ explains Dr Simkin.
‘Herd immunity is important for preventing future pandemics and protecting those too young, ill or allergic to be vaccinated.’
The tell-tale rash of measles is often accompanied by a high fever and cough. Source: Centers for Disease Control Photo: Jim Goodson/Centers for Disease Control/Public Health Image Library
Before widespread vaccination began in 1980, measles killed 2.6 million people globally each year.
Map: Museums Victoria
In 1990 global measles cases fell by two thirds from 1980 levels, to 1.3 million.
In 2014, Australia was declared free of circulating measles by the World Health Organisation. However, there have been more recent outbreaks traced back to infected overseas travellers.
While restrictions have stopped the spread of measles in Australia in 2021, the pandemic has also paused vaccination programs around the world—something that makes another measles outbreak all the more likely as things open up.
International research has also demonstrated a previously unknown danger of measles that has been dubbed ‘immune amnesia’.
These studies noted that after recovering from measles, there was a decrease in general antibodies (the proteins that flag germ invaders for destruction).
Some animal studies even showed a loss of B cells (which remember infections for fast future antibody production).
This immune amnesia could leave the sufferer vulnerable to other pathogens and was generally not seen in vaccinated groups.
All of this raises an important point—even if you do survive a disease, it does not mean you will be spared from long-lasting injury.
It is far better not to have the disease at all because many viruses cause damage to our bodies that can lead to other illnesses, sometimes years later.
This is the concept behind cancer vaccines, including for cervical cancer.
This vaccine does not target cancer at all, but rather the human papillomavirus (HPV) that can damage the body enough to increases the likelihood of cancer.
Lingering injury is also of concern with COVID-19 but because it is so new, we are not likely to see the long-term consequences for decades.
Vaccine development for COVID-19 saw a number of firsts—one of which was the creation of several safe and effective options in such a short period of time.
‘It was a monumental human feat to develop the vaccine, test it and get it registered within two years,’ says Professor Pellegrini.
‘It’s never been done before.’
Part of the reason for that speed, explains Professor Pellegrini, is experience.
‘Several years ago we had what was called H1N1 flu, which really made us quite scared.’
The 2009 swine flu pandemic, caused by a relative of the H1N1 strain behind the 1918 flu, killed more than 150,000 people around the world.
‘It spread like wildfire, and we didn't respond very quickly,’ he says.
‘We learnt a little bit from that [H1N1] virus such that we did become a little bit more pandemic aware and a tiny bit more pandemic prepared.’
The development of COVID-19 vaccinations also benefitted from all the development work that had gone before it, an established and well-funded industry, and collective focus.
The results of centuries of progress, housed in a tiny bottle. Photo: Eugene Hyland/Museums Victoria
‘This is what happens when we throw everything at creating a solution,’ says Dr Simkin.
Those developing COVID-19 vaccines were able to take advantage of a tried and tested method that relies on the outer coat of the coronavirus, also known as the spike protein.
‘If you consider the virus to be like a peanut, you take away the actual nuts inside and just have a little coat on the outside,’ explains Professor Pellegrini.
‘That little coat is actually an effective mechanism to educate the immune system.’
Here you can see the outer spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It is this protein that allows the virus to get inside our cells. Image courtesy of the Doherty Institute. Photo: Photographer: Dr Jason Roberts; Electron Microscopist: Dr Andrew Leis/Copyright Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity 2020
But making viral coats for vaccines is not a trivial matter.
‘Very recent, and very timely, advances in vaccine technologies provided a massive leapfrog enabling us to quickly create COVID-19 vaccines.’
The AstraZeneca vaccine uses a benign chimpanzee cold virus that has been engineered ‘to deliver the spike protein to our cells so that we learn to recognise and respond to the real threat,’ says Professor Pellegrini.
‘The other way that you can educate our bodies to respond to spike protein is to use what's called mRNA.’
mRNA (or messenger Ribonucleic Acid) has been studied for decades but COVID-19 is the first time it has been available in vaccines.
As Professor Pellegrini explains: ‘mRNA is actually part of our normal biology—our DNA chromosomes make RNA, which becomes the template for making all of our body’s critical proteins.’
While most other vaccines use an inactivated or weakened form of the virus (remember Salk and Sabin?), mRNA vaccines are instead coded to simulate it so there is no risk of infection.
Our body recognises the mRNA in the vaccine, like Pfizer and Moderna, and uses it to make the spike protein.
‘We only make the spike protein for a tiny period—just long enough to instruct our bodies to develop immunity to it,’ says Professor Pellegrini.
‘The reason mRNA is short lived is because our bodies actively destroy it…therefore the mRNA doesn’t hang around to interfere with DNA at all.’
He says it has been so successful, that it will ‘become the new fundamental platform’ for all vaccines.
‘In fact, we’ll probably go backwards and start reinventing some of our original vaccines that aren’t so good, using this mRNA technology.’
But Professor Pellegrini says that does not mean that vaccines like AstraZeneca are now obsolete.
‘Some vaccines have got peculiar side effects—they are very rare, but they are still very tangible.
‘Some people might not be able to have an mRNA vaccine because they are allergic to a thing called PEG (Polyethylene Glycol), which is critical to multiplying the mRNA.
‘Others might have problems because they’ve got major clotting abnormalities and they can’t have the AstraZeneca vaccine.
‘Having more vaccines available means we can immunise a greater proportion of people and we can mix and match them going forwards to optimise immunity.’
And while Professor Pellegrini does not believe it is possible to eliminate COVID-19 entirely, he says the virus can be controlled with high rates of vaccination.
‘It's a matter of making a substantial part of the population immune to this particular virus so that it doesn't transmit particularly well and you’re really forcing the virus to change.
‘Over time it will encounter more and more resistance to its spread, to the point where it becomes very hard for it to spread unless it becomes something that's incredibly benign.
‘That's probably how covid will end up,’ says Professor Pellegrini.
But as we have learned, that will take time and a lot of vaccines.
Many public buildings became vaccination hubs in 2021, including the Melbourne Museum. Photo: Photographer: Eugene Hyland/Museums Victoria