The past may hold the answer to getting America back to work

With a vaccine at least a year away, the past may hold the answer to getting the world back in order. Variolation is a six-hundred-year-old predecessor to the smallpox vaccination. It was also an essential part of creating the United States of America. It may be time to visit it once again.

Variolation worked by introducing a minute dose of the smallpox virus into the human body to trigger a mild infection that stimulates the immune system. Unfortunately, some people reacted strongly even to a small dose, and about 2% of people died. The variolation mortality rate, though, was still better than having smallpox running rampant through a community. With variolation, smallpox’s mortality ranged from 35% in Europeans to 90% in Native Americans.

Variolation also failed to control contagion. Because variolated people genuinely had smallpox, they were contagious. However, if a substantial subset of the population was variolated, that helped resolve the infection problem.

Unlike variolations, which mildly infect people to trigger an immune response, vaccinations trick the body into believing it’s been infected, which also creates an immune response. It is, of course, better to fake-out the immune system than to infect people with a disease, no matter how light the viral load. For now, though, we don't have that fake-out vaccination for the Wuhan virus.

Robin Hanson, a scientific polymath, has argued for some time that, with an approved vaccination far in the future, the best short term approach to dealing with the Wuhan virus is variolation. The issue, says Hanson, is viral load:

[E]xtreme “lockdowns”, which isolate most everyone at home, not only limit freedoms and strangle the economy, they also greatly increase death rates. This is because infections at home via close contacts tend to come with higher initial virus doses, in contrast to the smaller doses you might get from, say, a public door handle. As soon as your body notices an infection, it immediately tries to grow a response, while the virus tries to grow itself. From then on, it is a race to see which can grow biggest fastest. And the virus gets a big advantage in this race if its initial dose of infecting virus is larger.


Just as replacing accidental smallpox infections with deliberate low dose infections cut smallpox deaths by a factor of 10 to 30, a factor of 3-30 is plausible for Covid19 death rate cuts due to replacing accidental Covid19 infections with deliberate small dose infections.

Variolation has the virtue of being an honored American tradition.

In 1738, Charleston had a major smallpox outbreak. Eventually, there was a small effort at variolation, but it hadn't gotten off the ground when the epidemic subsided. Twenty-two years later, in 1760, when smallpox appeared again, the town’s doctors were more open to variolation. Within 2 1/2 weeks, they’d variolated 6,000 of the town’s 8,000 residents, black and white alike.

An interesting historical footnote is that, when doctors were called to white patients, they sweated the patients – that is, they basically parboiled the patients, killing them. Blacks, ignored by the medical establishment, did better, especially if they were exposed to sunshine. Sunshine’s benefits appeared again with the Spanish Influence in 1918, making ludicrous today’s mandate that Americans must be trapped indoors.

In 1776, the British brought smallpox with them to the siege of Boston. The British began deliberately sending sick people into rural populations outside of Boston that had no immunity to smallpox. Because these rural populations filled the Continental Army, the British were conducting germ warfare. George Washington stymied this effort by ordering that every recruit into the Continental Army be variolated before joining with the main body.

Today, variolation could be extremely successful because we have an advantage colonial Americans lacked: If the Wuhan virus is caught early enough, it appears that both the hydroxychloroquine cocktail and Remdesivir can treat it. Additionally, the Israeli Ministry of Defense announced that Israeli scientists have made a “terrific breakthrough” that will lead to an antidote to the Wuhan virus:

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett on Monday said he witnessed a “significant breakthrough” by Israel’s defense biological research institute in developing an antibody to COVID-19, as the researchers wrapped up the development phase and moved to patent and mass produce the potential treatment.

Bennett visited the labs of the Israel Institute for Biological Research (IIBR), a secretive unit that works under the Prime Minister’s Office, in Ness Ziona and was shown the “antibody that attacks the virus in a monoclonal way and can neutralize it within the bodies of those ill,” according to a statement from his office.

The lockdowns are killing the American economy. Inducing a light viral load into the majority of health Americans may be the way to get America back to work.