Dubai: It’s a race against time. The battle to subdue the new coronavirus. Scientists are frantic, governments are desperate.
The virus has gone past the initial state of control: containment.
It’s a stealthy character, people do not show symptoms when they are initially infected, so the range of spread is truly difficult to control because people become silent carriers.
Authorities cannot logically just pounce on people based on nationalities and areas of travel. The world cannot function in this moribund state.
It is bad for our sense of well-being and definitely not a happy state for economies.
So, is it all doom?
No, because Nature and science are going to help humanity battle the crowned fiend into submission.
Weather and the virus
There was a ray of hope as the weather turned that the new coronavirus will disappear as it gets warmer. Certain viruses do not survive higher temperatures and increased humidity. But, alas no.
As per a Vox.com report that quoted Maimuna Majumder, a Harvard epidemiologist: “Just because some respiratory diseases, like flu, demonstrate seasonality doesn’t mean that Covid-19 will.”
She published a paper that found changes in the weather in China did not seem to halt the outbreak, but she and her colleagues are still working on “the potential effect of temperature on transmissibility”.
So, the data is still “provisional”. Obviously, the virus is not going anywhere soon, it might subside as summer peaks, but will be back next winter.
The pop-culture phrase, “Winter is coming”, is going to have a whole new connotation, come autumn.
What’s the prognosis, then?
Well, some scientists and researchers say that if it cannot be stopped by physical containment, then the only real answer humanity has is immunity. Now, this is where it gets a bit tricky.
It is a new, young virus. Initially it was said to have come from snakes, but that has been dismissed by scientists. The mapping of this virus genome by Chinese scientists has shown to have resemblance to two other viruses found in bats, which is now being considered a probable source.
But, viruses are known for the ability to mutate, so research is saying that the new coronavirus is a combination of a bat virus and virus that live within the scales of pangolins, actively used in Chinese medicine that came about in early December.
What does this mean? That one virus jumped species, mutated to create Covid-19.
So, essentially, we, as a people, have no immunity to it. We have not encountered it previously.
So, as per epidemiologists quoted by vox.com, “the only way for this to get under control is for 50 per cent of people to become immune to it. …If enough people get Covid-19, and develop an immune response, essentially it creates its own herd immunity. But that’s after causing … millions of worldwide infections.”
In essence, it becomes a full-fledged pandemic that then converts into an endemic, which means it will continue to infect the human population like the common cold.
But, by then we would have a vaccines and targeted anti-viral drugs.
Another option: Evolution?
Well, in theory, apparently evolution could make Covid-19 far less lethal.
Most organisms on this planet create survival strategies, in which case, the fatal strains of the virus will die off when its host passes away.
Definitely, not ideal, because that is not going to happen overnight.
But, as per another Harvard epidemiologist, it is probable that nearly 60 per cent of the world’s population will be exposed and could contract the virus before the end of 2020. Ermmm… not exactly ideal. (China really needs to ban these live markets – I know that's a whole different tangent, but we would not be in this place in the first place, if endangered species were not part of the meal plan.)
So, what can truly stop the coronavirus?
Only two things: vaccine and targeted anti-viral drugs. And work is being done on them at a frenetic pace. And this where it gets cool on a geeky, nerdy level.
Science is coming to the rescue, especially the field of genetics and bio-engineering.
Only two things: vaccine and targeted anti-viral drugs. And work is being done on them at a frenetic pace. And this where it gets cool on a geeky, nerdy level. Science is coming to the rescue, especially the field of genetics and bio-engineering.
Earlier, to put it quite simplistically, vaccine manufacture involved isolating the actual virus, making them toothless and then injecting into test cases.
So that the body can be trained to fight it off with the creation of antibodies, without getting infected. But, there was a downside to that, it had the probability of actually badly infecting the test cases, resulting in death sometimes.
This is the fundamental reason human trials for any new drug or vaccine takes a while.
This time around, we’ve got a bit smarter. Labs are synthesizing what is called mRNA, or messenger RNA.
It works quite like the Greek mythological deity Hermes, who was the messenger between Mt Olympus or where the divine deities apparently resided, and humanity. In this case, mRNA, which resembles parts of the DNA that houses all the instructions for our body, to the outside cytoplasm.
Okay, stay with me.
Cytoplasm is the processor or implementer of the instructions sent by the DNA via the mRNA.
And what are scientists doing, they are taking this and synthesizing mRNA in the lab, which will then be released into muscles, with instructions to help create antibodies against Covid-19.
We are fighting the virus at a highly drilled down level.
But, there is still a timeline linked to that. We cannot realistically expect anything with efficacy before a year.
Who is doing what?
1) Inovio Pharmaceuticals
As per global reports, the biotech company Inovio Pharmaceuticals and its partner Beijing Advaccine Biotechnology are working on a “DNA vaccine” called INO-4800. It hasn’t yet been tested on humans. The vaccine will deliver lab-created genes into a person’s cells, which then pushes the person’s immunological response to Covid-19.
The international Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) is working with the biotech company Moderna to deliver mRNA-1273. This vaccine will push the recipient’s cells to start creating the viral protein, to which the immune system will go into battle mode.
The great news, it [genetics'-based vaccine] is further down the development stage and should enter human trials in a few weeks’ time. If approved, it will be the first vaccine of its kind, along with being faster, safer (no live viruses) and cheaper to manufacture.
The great news, it is further down the development stage and should enter human trials in a few weeks’ time. If approved, it will be the first vaccine of its kind, along with being faster, safer (no live viruses) and cheaper to manufacture.
The biotech CureVac is also working on an mRNA vaccine. And they are quite confident about success because they have tried a rabies mRNA vaccine in humans, and were successful in immunizing with low dosages.
4) Baylor College of Medicine
A few years’ ago, the vaccine research center at Baylor College of Medicine developed a vaccine for another coronavirus — SARS. But, it did not go into human testing, as global interest waned. As per scientists at the college, both SARS and Covid-19 are “about 80 per cent similar in their amino acid and genetic code, and they bind to the same receptor”, as reported by several news sites. They just need funding to start human trials.
Note: As per the World Health Organisation, the SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV) was identified in 2003. SARS-CoV is thought to be an animal virus from an as-yet-uncertain animal reservoir, perhaps bats, that spread to other animals (civet cats) and first infected humans in the Guangdong province of southern China in 2002.
Calling for urgent funding
Apparently the money needed for the research, testing and trials are about $2 billion (Dh7.4 billion). Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ charity foundation is providing around $100 million (Dh368 million) in Covid-19 research funding.
But, there is still a big need for additional funding, and this is a cause for concern for many others using different technologies, such as premade antibodies (antibodies, also known as an immunoglobulins, are proteins produced by cells used by the immune system to eliminate bad bacteria and viruses) and attempting to deliver a vaccine as fast as possible.
Time for the world to step up and do their bit, especially those who can afford to.