The real reason there’s no cure for your cold | BBC Ideas


You’d think there should be a cure
for the common cold. Scientists have been working on
cold viruses for over 70 years, but they’ve never found
an effective cure. The cold is the world’s most
prevalent infectious disease, adults get between two and four
colds a year and children get way, way more. So this means that you’ll probably
get over 200 colds in your lifetime. And at any one point, hundreds of
millions of people around the world have a cold. So we’re going to talk about why
it’s so difficult to cure the cold in a moment. But before that,
we should go back to the very first time we thought
we were going to cure it. The golden age of cold
research starts in 1957, with a scientist named Winston Price
at Johns Hopkins University. Price is the first person to ever
isolate a cold virus in a laboratory, and this is a really big deal because
while people had described the symptoms of a cold for thousands
of years, nobody had ever found the agent that causes it. So Price becomes sort of like a
minor scientific celebrity. And he then announces that he’s
going to create a vaccine for it. But, the vaccine doesn’t work
very well, it only protects against a very, very small proportion of
infections and Price has no idea why. Now this is pretty disappointing,
but it’s good to think about what’s going on
in science at the time. People are incredibly, incredibly
optimistic about the potential for research and especially
medical research. The polio vaccine had just
been created in 1955, and it’s the dawn of
the age of antibiotics. And after the Second World War,
governments are really, really, keen to invest in ambitious projects
with definite goals that solve big problems in society. And so the cold becomes one of
these things, and a huge amount of funding
comes down on the problem. It moves beyond Price’s lab
and cold research centres open across the entire world. And my favourite one of these is the
Common Cold Research Unit in Salisbury, in England. So the scientists there put ads
in the local paper, basically advertising a two week
vacation in the countryside – as long as you were willing to be
locked in a drafty corridor or to huff bags of cold infected air
and let scientists observe you for a couple hours every day. And so what scientists unpick over
the next 30 years from all of this, is that the cold isn’t caused by one
virus, it’s caused by seven different viral families, and each one has
subtypes which are called “serotypes” which are recognised differently
by the immune system. And so, this is why the cold
is so difficult to cure and it’s why Price’s vaccine never
worked, it was only for the one cold family and one serotype
he’d isolated. The problem is, at the time that
this is all known in the 1980s, vaccine technology could only fit in
a few serotypes per injection, without causing an enormous
immune response. And so, you basically have the
science that we know at an impasse with the technology at the time. And people have been working on
colds for almost a generation, 25 or 30 years, and the scientific
imagination has a tendency to wander. Elite virologists and government
funding start
moving more into other projects, like AIDS
– which is incredibly deadly and almost a total mystery
at the time. And so colds kind of go out of favour
as a topic of research and the common cold unit
even shutters in 1990. Since then, we’ve gotten way better
at dealing with infectious diseases. We’ve eradicated smallpox,
gotten measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, whooping cough,
all kinds of things under control. And so cold research has undergone
a bit of a renaissance lately. There’s two totally different
approaches that are both quite promising. In the UK, there’s a group that’s
taking a look at every single cold serotype, and trying to find a
piece in common that they can target a vaccine to. It’s quite like an elegant,
direct approach. And then there’s an American
company who’s trying to create a super vaccine. So this would be one shot,
with all 50 of the most common cold serotypes in it.
It’s sort of a brute force approach. But, despite the promise of all this
research, there’s still one big hurdle to getting it finished
and that has more to do with the business of science
than science itself. The thing is, vaccines aren’t very good bets
for pharmaceutical companies. They’re incredibly
expensive to develop and failure rates are really high,
even late in trials. It takes about $1 billion American
dollars and almost a decade to develop a successful vaccine. Of all the thousands of
pharmaceutical companies that there are, only about five work on
vaccines really seriously and these are the biggest
and richest companies. And when it comes down to it, would
you really get an expensive injection just to avoid a few days discomfort?
I probably wouldn’t. So, even after all the progress
over the past 70 years we’ll probably continue
to suffer from colds. Thanks for watching. Don’t forget to subscribe and click the bell to receive notifications for new videos See you again soon!

1 thought on “The real reason there’s no cure for your cold | BBC Ideas

  1. Hi everyone 😊 Comment below your favourite life hack for cold symptoms (since it doesn’t look like we’ll be getting a cure any time soon).

    Don’t forget to give this video a like if you found it interesting and keep an eye out for our next one because we put out new videos every week.

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