Saturday May 18, 2024

Pandemic science

By Atta-ur-Rahman
April 01, 2020

Recently Mr Abdullah Hussain Haroon, former ambassador of Pakistan to the United Nations, came forward with a video recording in which he states that the Covid-19 pandemic is not a natural epidemic but that it was invented in a laboratory as a part of a heinous conspiracy involving Israel, USA and Europe to stop the fast economic development of China.

According to Mr Haroon, a US-based company obtained a patent (No US2006257952) in 2006 of the virus from the US government. However, this information is incorrect as a Google search shows that it has nothing to do with coronavirus but that it was granted to Roche and relates to breast cancer. Similarly according to Mr Haroon, the patent for a vaccine for coronavirus (No EP3172319B1) was applied for in Europe in 2014; and the patent was granted in November 2019. An examination of the patent shows that it is for a vaccine for coronavirus that infects birds and causes symptoms found in bird influenza. It is not for humans.

According to other conspiracy theories, these strains of the coronavirus were accidentally released from US or Chinese laboratories where bioweapons programmes were underway. However, this is mostly conjecture, and there is no solid proof that any of the claims are correct. We may never know the truth.

But conspiracy theories aside, what does science say? The present scientific evidence points to the fact that the virus arose from certain bats in China that contain viruses very similar in structure to that found in Covid-19. One particular bat virus (code named RaTG13), or another virus very similar to it, was most probably the origin. It managed to make two tiny genetic tweaks to its structure that made it so lethal. The first tweak involved allowing it to bind to certain receptors (ACE2) that are present in human cells and that are particularly abundant in human lung cells. This binding is tight, almost perfect, 10 times stronger than what the earlier known SARS virus cells could do.

The second feature that the virus developed was to have a large number of protrusions on its surface that act as tiny harpoons and are able to penetrate into the human lung or other cells when they receive the right signals. The ability of the virus to jump from animals to humans coupled with these two tiny genetic changes has transformed it into a huge global threat to human survival, and it is feared that millions may die before the present storm is over.

In Pakistan we have been so far very lucky that we are not as badly affected as the US and many countries in Europe. The Ministry of Science and Technology has formed a task force to fight against the coronavirus under my chairmanship. The task force has undertaken a number of important initiatives including the procurement and processing for the approval of designs for the manufacture of ventilators needed in hospitals by coronavirus patients. Actual testing and large-scale manufacture could take months which will be too late. Another important initiative is the undertaking of clinical trials at the University of Health Sciences, Lahore and Karachi on some known drugs and anti-viral compounds to determine their efficacy and safety.

A third important project undertaken is the determination of the structure of the strain of coronavirus found in Pakistan. This is being done at the Jamilur Rahman Center for Genomics Research which is an integral part of the Dr Panjwani Center for Molecular Medicine and Drug Research, at the International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences at University of Karachi. It has been found that the virus has undergone mutations at nine points in its structure as compared to the virus in Wuhan. The implications of these changes are being studied.

The task force is also actively working on the expansion of hospital facilities for coronavirus tests from patients. In this connection, the capacity for daily tests at the Indus Hospital Karachi has already been increased from 800 tests per day to 2400 tests per day through a loan of equipment and technicians installed in the Panjwani Center for Molecular Medicine.

It is vitally important that Pakistan should urgently increase the capacity to carry out 100,000 tests per day. Hundreds of testing facilities should be set up in every neighbourhood of every city with testing done through kits free of charge. We also need to aggressively isolate infected persons and their contacts if we are to contain this menace.

The present testing facilities in the country are pathetic. It is important that the research centers in universities presently under lockdown across Pakistan are immediately allowed to reopen and continue the fight against this deadly virus.

The writer is the former chairman of the HEC, and president of the Network of Academies of Science of OICCountries (NASIC).