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March 18, 2020

Coronavirus and Pakistan

Opinion

March 18, 2020

The world is in the middle of the worst pandemic in recent history, as the strain of coronavirus Covid-19 spreads rapidly. Starting from Wuhan, China in December 2019, the numbers are rising rapidly with every minute.

What makes it most dangerous is the fact that it can be spread by persons who do not show any symptoms. So a person sitting next to you or travelling with you may appear perfectly normal with no fever, cold or cough, but he may be infected and be able to spread the disease. This makes it impossible to prevent its spread, except by mass isolation and close down, which is practically difficult.

Interestingly, the first National Center for Virology is being recently established as a part of the International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences at the University of Karachi, in collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virology and three German institutions, Eberhard Karls-University of Tuebingen, Tuebingen University, and Medidiagnost. Wuhan is the very city in China from where the coronavirus first started. The Wuhan Institute of Virology is administered by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), the most powerful scientific organization in China, and it is the leading centre for virus research in China.

The need to set up a top class centre for virology was felt by the scientific leadership of the International Center for Chemical Biological Sciences several years ago, reflecting their foresight. The International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences now houses some 17 buildings spread over about 70 acres of land with some 600 students enrolled for PhD. It has been internationally awarded many international prizes and awards and is now the Unesco Center of Excellence, providing training to many scientists from other countries, including Germany.

The centre has been built through a number of private-public partnerships starting with the Husein Ebrahim Jamal Foundation that has set up a number of research centers in the institution, including the now famous H E J Research Institute of Chemistry. The Panjwani Center for Molecular Medicine was later established by the Panjwani Foundation and has already established excellent standards. Other donors include the Searle company led by Rashid Abdullah saheb. I also donated funds to it for setting up the Jamil ur Rahman Center for Genomics Research established in my father’s name.

After returning from Cambridge University in 1973, I have spent all my life in its development. It is now led by Prof Iqbal Choudhary, a leading research scientist of Pakistan. The buildings of the Virology Center have been constructed and Special Biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) facilities are being established in it, needed for research where work is performed with viruses and other agents that may cause serious or potentially lethal diseases through inhalation and that may contaminate the environment. A non-lethal form of Covid-19 was imported by this Karachi Center earlier this year, and work started in earnest to find a cure for this lethal disease.

Already exciting progress has been made and some compounds have been discovered from the internal Molecular Bank of about 18,000 natural and synthetic compounds present in the institute. The genetic structure of the genome of the virus was identified earlier this year by Chinese scientists, which allows a rational approach to drug design. Ten substances have been so far found by our research group under the leadership of Prof Iqbal Choudhary and others, and the first international publication from Pakistan is now under process.

Coronaviruses are enveloped RNA viruses. The most recent common ancestor (MRCA) of all coronaviruses probably existed around 8000 BCE. Bats and birds are excellent hosts. The present types of coronaviruses were discovered in the 1960s and they cause respiratory tract infections. The word ‘corona’ originates from Latin, meaning ‘crown’, because the virus has an outer fringe resembling a crown.

The first lethal class of these viruses, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, SARS-CoV, was detected in Guangdong, China, in November 2002 and it caused 8096 infections in human beings and 744 deaths. The second lethal type of coronavirus was the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, MERS-CoV, that was detected in Jeddah Saudi Arabia in 2012. It caused 2494 human infections and 858 deaths, a very high mortality rate of about 37 percent.

By far the fastest spreading of the three lethal types of coronaviruses, Covid-19, is the one affecting the world now. It was first detected in Wuhan China in December 2019 and there are already about 162,000 confirmed cases and over 6,000 deaths within about three months. It is spreading like wild fire all over the world which makes it the most dangerous of all varieties. It spreads by physical contact through exposure to droplets of water emitted by infected patients when sneezing or coughing and by physical touch to objects previously touched by infected patients.

The most dangerous feature of this virus is that patients suffering from this disease may not show any symptoms, such as fever, cold or cough, but they may be still be able to infect others. This makes it impossible to prevent infected persons from crossing borders across countries unless one tests every single traveller, which is impossible.

Coronavirus is here and we cannot stop it as vaccines will take at least 12 to 18 months to be made available on a large scale. All that we can do is to focus our efforts on early detection of infected patients, rapidly tracing all their contacts, and isolating them as soon as possible. An even more dangerous aspect is that it has the potential to mutate and transform into an aerial borne variety, which will be a huge global disaster.

In order to protect people from being infected by the coronavirus, the WHO has provided a list of safety measures that are to be carried out by every individual, particularly the regular washing of hands and the avoidance of touching one’s face, lips, eyes etc. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, there has been great emphasis on the usage of protective facial masks.

The protective masks are to be worn by people only when they are in close contact with a suspected individual as Covid-19 travels in the form of droplets which are particularly formed when individual coughs or sneezes. Proper masks of N-95 or N-100 grading are not available locally, but other masks can also some protection.

Covid-19 is a pandemic now, and requires actions at the local, regional and global levels. However, surprisingly there is no global action on horizon. Poor nations with weak healthcare systems and the inability to sustain a ‘global lock-down’ will not able to fight this menace alone, and will certainly need international assistance.

The writer is the formerchairman of the HEC, andpresident of the Network of Academies of Science of OICCountries (NASIC).

Email: [email protected]