Dec 9, 2020 - Science

The doctors who saved millions of lives by helping eradicate smallpox

Zhdanov, left, and Foege.
Zhdanov, left, and Foege. Photo: Future of Life Institute

The Future of Life Institute on Wednesday gave its annual award to two doctors who were the key figures behind the eradication of smallpox.

Why it matters: Smallpox was one of the deadliest diseases the world has ever known, killing an estimated 500 million people in the 20th century alone. The hard-fought campaign to eliminate it not only saved what Future of Life estimates is 200 million people, but also "showed the world that diseases can be defeated," as Bill Gates put it.

What's happening: Each year the Future of Life Institute, a nonprofit research center in Boston that focuses on existential risk, recognizes unsung individuals who helped avert global catastrophe.

  • This year's winners, announced at an online ceremony, are Viktor Zhdanov and Bill Foege.
  • Zhdanov served as the Soviet Union's deputy minister of health and pushed the WHO in 1958 to take up the campaign to eradicate smallpox.
  • While serving as the chief of the CDC's Smallpox Eradication Program, Foege developed the surveillance and ring vaccination strategy that ultimately enabled the world to finally achieve eradication 41 years ago today.

What they're saying: "The eradication of smallpox is one achievement that we all look to," said Jennifer Doudna, one of the creators of CRISPR and a 2020 Nobel Prize winner, at the ceremony. "It couldn't be more relevant as we find ourselves in the middle of a global pandemic."

Flashback: The first two winners of the Future of Life award are more obscure than Zhdanov and Foege, but arguably even more consequential.

  • 2017 winner Vasili Arkhipov, a Soviet naval officer, likely prevented global atomic war when he convinced his submarine captain not to fire a nuclear weapon during the heat of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  • 2018 winner Stanislav Petrov was a Soviet air defense officer who in 1983 ignored an early-warning detection system that mistakenly indicated that the U.S. had launched nuclear missiles at the Soviet Union, preventing Moscow from firing back.

The bottom line: Many of us are only alive today because of the heroic efforts of people like Zhdanov and Foege.

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