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A fight for survival

Battle against COVID-19 can only progress by way of a concentrated effort by the scientific community in coming up with a true ‘antidote’ to viral infections

A fight for survival

Today the entire world is under an unprecedented lockdown due to the Coronavirus which first appeared in the Wuhan Province of China in November 2019 and is now threatening the world with a pandemic which holds the entire world in its grasp. The threat to the human race is on the same scale when the Prontosil, the first antibiotic was discovered in the year 1930 by the German biochemist Gerhard Domagk. The discovery of antibiotics revolutionised the science of medicine in treating infectious diseases. This discovery saved humanity as leading causes of death from infections was treated by the antibiotics and the rest is history. Today, the world that has advanced significantly in terms of technology as compared to the 20th century is at a crossroad once again and it is time now to think of how to get rid of the virus that is threatening human survival unless modern science brings its full force to bear.

It will also not be very out of place to link various viral disease explosions in recent times with climate change and changes it has brought in the living environment which is recklessly dominated and exploited by humankind. It is argued by many experts that at the end of the Cretaceous era, the emerging virus might have given mammals an edge over dinosaurs by incorporating itself into mammal genome and created conditions that helped the mammals to survive which apart from other reasons, ultimately led to the extinction of the mighty dinosaurs.

Today the Coronavirus is dancing like a demon unleashed upon the earth, bringing even the technologically advanced nation of the United States of America to its knees, helpless as it is in dealing with this pandemic that infected more than 164,000 people as of March 31, thus overtaking China as the country with the most infected. Today the world economy is on the verge of collapse due to lockdown in most countries.

The question confronting the general public is why many viral diseases like HIV, SAAR and now COVID-19 are difficult for the present generation of science to deal with. Scientists and biologists must ultimately develop a vaccine or other form of medicine to fight it. In fact, a vaccine could potentially be created from the blood serum of recovered survivors and from pangolins, bats, snakes and other animals which may have developed antibodies against this virus. Many Indian tribes have also developed antibodies against many diseases. Perhaps scientists are already looking into such methods since the outbreak began. All the same, the present generation of science must find a true 'antidote' like science discovered in penicillin in the 30s against bacterial diseases. Viral diseases are forgotten by scientists and those in power once they taper off, unlike bacterial diseases which caused unstoppable epidemic till antibiotics were invented. The main cause for the lack of interest is the capacity of viruses to mutate fast (in the process, rendering the work less profitable) and their difficult to understand structure makes the research uneconomical.

Viral diseases are proving more lethal all over the world because viruses are neither fully living nor fully non-living. All viruses have nucleic acid, either DNA or RNA and a protein coat, which encases the nucleic acid. Some viruses like Coronaviruses are also enclosed by an envelope of fat and protein molecules. The protein coat protects the viral genome and during infection attaches the virion to specific receptors on the prospective host cell. The modus operandi is to penetrate the cell membrane of the host cell and then replicate in abundance inside the host. They have puzzled scientists because they are infectious agents with both living and non-living characteristics. Living characteristics of viruses include the ability to reproduce but only in living host cells but their ability to mutate quickly poses the real challenge. This particular Coronavirus is also the mutated version of a previously known virus.

The real challenge today for scientists to develop a method of stopping the virus from delivering its RNA or DNA genome into the host cell. Once inside the host cell, it takes over and replicates in great numbers so attempts should be to develop medicines which will effectively prevent the entry. Research must also establish if the virus might have evolved from the strands or pieces of RNA or DNA of some animals. The focus of research should be more on tackling the issue at genome level first and the Indian Council of Medical Research should head a consortium of Indian Institutions which should also read the ancient literature and find out the traditional wisdom of ancient India in dealing with such viruses.

However, we must also realise that the mutations in viruses and other living beings are largely being caused by environmental factors and consequent climate change and unless the world seriously tackles climate change, the future of human race on this planet will be uncertain. In hindsight, this pandemic also appears to be nature's way of taking revenge against humanity for killing other plants and can be seen as a way of regulating the process of life by bringing equilibrium. We as country would like to give a clarion call to Indian scientists to invent a treatment and the knowledge of science tells us it may be within reach if acted upon sincerely. Why must we wait for the scientists of other nations to invent a cure? Let Prime Minister Modi, who is seriously concerned about the epidemic, appoint a task force to develop an effective antidote.

The writer is a former civil servant. Views expressed are strictly personal

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