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Eradicating COVID-19—Not Likely

How Vaccines Led to the Elimination of Smallpox

Eradicating COVID-19—Not Likely
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  • Length: 60 Minutes

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Students read an essay about the history of smallpox, the first case of human vaccination, and the eradication of smallpox as a naturally occurring viral disease in humans.


Teacher Background

The Science

British physician Edward Jenner tested the hypothesis that infection with the cowpox virus (vaccinia) could protect an individual from a much more deadly infection from smallpox (caused by the variola virus). He observed that dairy workers, who contracted cowpox from cattle, typically did not become infected with smallpox. In 1796, he inoculated an eight-year-old boy with material from a cowpox sore on the hand of an infected dairy worker. He later exposed the boy to material taken from a human smallpox sore. Fortunately, the boy remained healthy. The process became known as vaccination.

The eradication of smallpox is an example of what can be done to fight one of the most dreaded pandemics of all time. Smallpox spanned the world, causing tens of millions of deaths over several millennia. The defeat of smallpox began with the discovery of an effective vaccination in the 18th century. Still, it took almost 200 years before vaccination became so widespread that no more cases of smallpox occurred. The World Health Assembly (the decision-making body of the World Health Organization) officially declared the world free of this disease on May 8, 1980.

Smallpox is the only virus disease ever eliminated. The essay that accompanies this activity tells how this happened and is a great lesson to inform how we handle COVID-19.

?The modern process of vaccine development and testing follows rigorous ethical guidelines and oversight. Four principles must be upheld: respect for persons, beneficence (the ethical obligation to maximize possible benefits and minimize harm), non-maleficence (avoiding harm to research subjects) and justice (vulnerable groups like children should be protected and no one group should have a disproportionate benefit or harm).



Smallpox is the only infectious disease to have been eradicated through worldwide vaccination. Modern vaccines are developed and tested following rigorous and ethical processes. Scientists and engineers are guided by habits of mind, such as intellectual honesty, tolerance of ambiguity, skepticism and openness to new ideas.

Objectives and Standards

Learning Objective

Students will describe the first documented record of vaccination against smallpox, integrate information presented in different media (text and video) and compare the original process with the ways in which modern drug and vaccine developers protect human health and safety.


Science, Health or Math Skills



Reading informational text

NGSS Science & Engineering Practices

Asking Questions and Defining Problems

Analyzing and Interpreting Data

Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions

Engaging in Argument from Evidence


Set Up – 10 minutes

Activity – 45 minutes

Materials and Setup

Students will need:

  • Copy (printed or electronic) of the essay entitled Eradicating COVID-19—Not Likely
  • Paper, notebook or device on which to write their 3-2-1 reflections and create a table of similarities and differences between old and new methods of vaccine development.
  • Computer or other device to access CDC website materials


Set Up and Teaching Tips

Students will read an historical essay about the development of vaccination and eventual eradication of smallpox as a naturally occurring infectious disease. You may assign this reading as homework over one or two days, or have students read the essay in class prior to leading a discussion. Afterward, students will watch a CDC video on modern vaccine development to compare the process followed by Edward Jenner, the inventor of smallpox vaccination, and modern procedures.


Procedure and Extensions


  1. Give students the opportunity to read the essay Eradicating COVID-19—Not Likely. Have each student answer the following 3 – 2 – 1 questions about their reading.

What are three things you learned?

What are two questions you have?

What is one idea or concept you would like to learn more about?

  1. Discuss students’ ideas and questions. If needed, use the resources at the end of this lesson for additional research by students on vaccines or smallpox.


  1. Ask students if they have ever received a smallpox vaccine. Most likely, the answer will be “no.” After smallpox was eliminated from the world, routine vaccination against smallpox among the general public was stopped because it was no longer needed. Follow by asking what vaccines students remember having received. Possible answers might include MMR (measles, mumps, rubella), Tdap (pertussis and tetanus), polio and influenza (flu).

  2. Explain that some vaccines confer lifelong immunity to a disease, such as the MMR or polio vaccines. Others must be administered as often as every year (flu) or after several years have gone by (Tdap, for example, should be administered again as a “booster” every 10 years). Due to genetic changes in the virus strains, for example, flu vaccines are adjusted each year. Changes are based on international surveillance of the virus and scientists’ predictions about which strains of flu viruses will be circulating during the coming year.


  1. Have students discuss how Edward Jenner came up with the idea of vaccination. Ask, do you think a researcher would be able to perform similar experiments today? Why or why not?


The answer is “no.” Current biomedical research procedures are guided by principles of respect for persons, beneficence (the ethical obligation to maximize possible benefits and minimize harm), non-maleficence (avoiding harm to research subjects) and justice (vulnerable groups like children should be protected and no one group should have a disproportionate benefit or harm).


  1. Have students watch the following video from the CDC in class or as an assignment, The Journey of Your Child’s Vaccine. It describes vaccine development and clinical trials.


  1. Upon completion, have students work individually or in teams to answer one of the questions below.

    • How does Jenner’s approach to vaccine development compare to the modern approach to vaccine development described in the video? Students should create a list of at least 5 similarities and 5 differences between the old and the new approach.

    • How did vaccinations stop smallpox? Write a summary of the major events.

    • If you were a member of the World Health Assembly, what would you propose to fight COVID-19, based on what you learned about the elimination of smallpox?

    • Will COVID-19 be eradicated or will it become endemic like seasonal flu? Use evidence to justify your answer.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). History of Smallpox.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Understanding How Vaccines Work.

College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The History of Vaccines.

Davies, H. 2007. Ethical reflections on Edward Jenner’s experimental treatment. J. Medical Ethics. 33(3):174-176. doi: 10.1136/jme.2005.015339

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Health Equity Considerations and Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups.

World Health Organization (WHO). Frequently asked questions and answers on smallpox.


The COVID HACKS curriculum project is made possible thanks to the support from Laura & John Arnold and Baylor College of Medicine. Scientists, educators and physicians from Baylor College of Medicine provided content, feedback and technical reviews.