It is unusual to have breakfast at home on a regular working day, as we’ve always left home before 7.00 am. Under the lockdown here in Kuala Lumpur, we are having our breakfast at home nowadays. In one of these fine morning during breakfast our youngest son, who is now 7 years old, started an unusual conversation.
Our son: Why did this corona have to come?
Me: I don’t know.
Our son: Then ask the scientists. He urged. He sounded serious. I guess he was missing his school, or perhaps to play and chat with his friends.
Me: What shall I ask?
Our son: Ask them, “Why this corona has to come?” He repeated his first question.
It was good that he did not ask, if I am a scientist or not. His lack of knowledge of my academic background in Microbiology also helped me escape further embarrassment. However, I was not able to escape my conscience.
Do we really know, as scientist, where COVID-19 came from? Well, the answer is “yes”. Scientists proved that the virus was not laboratory-made but rather a natural one with unusual features such as gene encoding in its spike protein containing 12 extra RNA building blocks. And we believe in that empirical evidence.
Furthermore, the number of scientific papers on the COVID-19 is mounting. Scientists around the world are racing to spot all relevant aspects: from the pathogenesis to the psychological impact on people who remained locked-down to control the spread of the culprit – COVID-19. The unprecedented impact of the emerging global recession is also at the core of scientific and political analyses.
I wonder; is there anything new to it? Well, some may claim that the virus has “novel” features. In addition, its mechanism of pathogenesis, clinical or subclinical symptoms of its infection, its mode of transmission and spread are somewhat different than the many other pathogenic viruses that we have dealt with before. Let me refrain from sparking a debate to invalidate that claim. Nonetheless, I can fairly maintain a moderate view – none of what is happening is beyond our knowledge. In one or another way, we know how a pathogenic virus could become lethal, how a droplet-based or air-borne pathogen may turn into a pandemic havoc. If anyone says, “We did not know that!”, then I must say that we are simply stupid! And that is because of our failure to reasonably extrapolate our knowledge and experience that we had in dealing with pathogenic viruses that have caused havoc in the past.
Now the reality is “the Corona crisis is real”. People who are detected positive for COVID-19 are dying at a rate that is far more than we can embrace with our hearts. We can neither hold an infected one nor can we touch our departed beloved ones for the last time before we say the final goodbye. We don’t have a vaccine to prevent further spread of COVID-19 or a drug to cure the threat. And billions around the world are at risk to get infected while millions are at risk of dying. Meanwhile, in hospitals and clinics around the world, there are dedicated doctors, nurses, cleaners and others fighting in the frontline to diagnose and provide the necessary support to those who are inflicted. Some have even decided to put aside the diseased elderlies who will no longer be useful for the socio-economic development of their nation.
We will live with this abysmal reality until this crisis is over and will bear the pain of losing our loved ones until we ourselves die.
This has made the race for the search to develop a vaccine to prevent further spread of COVID-19 or to develop a drug to cure the threat a human obligation. And that is what the scientific brains are now occupied with full concentration and focus.
Meanwhile, we are about to forget – that COVID-19; which has infected and killed hundreds and thousands in Wuhan – its birthplace - was unable to do the same in Beijing or Shanghai. Ironically, the same COVID-19 is infecting and killing thousands of people miles away from its birthplace within a few months after its first outbreak in Wuhan. How did this happen? How could COVID-19 reach Italy, Spain, the USA and many other parts of the world to cause a catastrophe that when it could have been easily averted with the knowledge of epidemiology, medical microbiology and last but not least with history of viral epidemics in the past?
Were the epidemiologists not prudent enough to foresee the pandemic from the experience of the Chinese? Or, how did the COVID-19 escape the eagle’s eye of the global media before it broke in the territory of nations far away from China? Even after spotting its arrival, why did the authorities not or were reluctant to take appropriate measures, i.e., quarantine and/or lockdown, to contain its spread? Was it because they were simply ignorant, arrogant, or something else?
Now let us hope that dedicated scientists from all over the world who are working day and night will successfully complete all necessary steps such as pinpointing the right epitope to develop a vaccine (or maybe DNA/RNA vaccine), conducting in vitro experiments, in vivo trials, and so on and so forth before they would decide to send their trial (or approved) vaccine for human trials as well as for mass administration. Then what? We shall have another story of “success” in our scientific venture. In such a moment of triumph, we shall reclaim, “now we are able to save millions of lives!”
For sure we know that the same vaccine will not work for another virus, if there is any coming in the near future. We also know that the same drug may not be able to cure another unforeseen pathogenesis. And again, by the time we will be able to develop a new vaccine or drug against the unforeseen pathogen, we will lose millions. Looks like “history repeats” in scientific claims too.
Is it not important for the scientists to dig the ditch of the origin of this virus? I mean to dig the ditch well. How is it - just one of few papers in “reputed” journals have made us so contended to stop asking many vital questions (as I raised a few of those earlier)? The reason we should go deeper into those ditches is because - merely knowing the “molecular” mechanisms is not helping us out from these predicaments. Our pride often flies above the sky to present our success to identifying a molecule (protein, or enzyme), detect a change in nucleotide sequence (mutation), or describe the crystal structure of a pathogenic culprit or its components. Does it really help mankind?
We lost millions during the Spanish Flu (1918), the Asian Flu (1957-1958), or even in the ongoing AIDS pandemic (since 1981). If not at the foot, we were not at the pinnacle of scientific advancement to embrace those epidemics or pandemics. Yet we are still losing millions.
Again, we can claim that vaccines and drugs that we developed has helped us to prevent the loss of millions of lives. There is a truth in that claim. Yet I am afraid, that claim is not “the truth, whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. The reason being, while we prevented some of those diseases and “saved” millions, we failed to protect other millions from other unforeseen diseases. From a pragmatic point of view, we could say 2 + 2 = 4. In other words, if we would fail to save millions with our effort to develop drugs and vaccines, we could now lose “millions + millions” with an added pandemic.
Here the point to be taken is, developing vaccines or drugs might help us to prevent the loss of added millions. But digging the ditch deeper might help us to prevent any loss at all - since that would allow us to stop the spread of the culprit before it becomes endemic or pandemic.
Now those who might have read until this point would wonder where “politics” in this article is. So far, I have been directly or indirectly crediting and blaming scientists only. The reality is scientific ventures cannot go outside the political agenda of a country. There are plenty of examples in it.
Let me focus on the corona crisis only. However, I shall not be able to cite any reputed journal to validate my claims. Therefore, I am ready to sop up “rational” admonishing of scientific minds. If we carefully snoop around mainstream media, we shall see (i) people in China who started talking about the Wuhan virus at the onset of the outbreak went missing or died, (ii) news are slowly emerging on how China did not let the world know about the truth of the outbreak, (iii) Donald Trump is not dumb enough to say - more people will die due to starvation or suicide than those to die due to the infection, or (iii) why was herd immunity considered as a better solution to control the COVID-19 outbreak in the UK. On top of that scientists and epidemiologists in Europe have enough expertise to recognize the deep impact of the corona crisis. Besides, up until now, journalists or scientists were not allowed to analyze how Wuhan was able to contain the virus without affecting the nearby cities including Beijing or Shanghai.
In summary, as scientists, it is simply not our business as we are not allowed to poke our noses into that. Hence, we are only focusing on the vaccine and drugs while forgetting many other important aspects of an epidemic! In fact, we have no other option. It is most likely that anyone who would attempt to apply for a research grant to investigate the “political” influence on the spread of the virus would fail to secure any support rather would be considered as utterly unscientific.
However, as I said earlier, we shall succeed in our scientific venture. Nonetheless, with another round of success in discovering the molecular detail of the COVID-19, we might once again be lamenting another unforeseen pandemic.
To overcome this cycle, perhaps we may consider finding ways to empower our natural immunity to overpower any such unusual "natural" pathogen. At the same time, perhaps scientists should consider using social media to spread the truth because politicians would not dare to defy the crowd. Most importantly, scientists and politicians must speak the same language from A to Z to fight any such threat to mankind.
Conviction: The Muslims gathered in masjids to pray for salvation from their Creator. The Christians gathered in churches and prayed to Jesus for help. The Jews are waiting for their Messiah to save them from the threat! The Hindus drunk cow-urine to prevent and cure of the COVID-19. With or without believing in a religion, those who have faith in science – are hoping to find a drug or a vaccine. Whatever the conviction is out there among the people, let us hope it does not worsen the deadly impact of the COVID-19.
Writer: Prof. Dr. Mohammad Tariqur Rahman
Faculty of Dentistry, University Malaya
Jalan Universiti, KL 50603, Malaysia
BDST: 1433 HRS, APR 02, 2020