Way back in the 14th century when medical science was in its infancy, plague broke out in Europe on a massive scale. The pandemic lasted for five years, from 1,347 to 1,352 and took an estimated toll of 30 million human lives. Today, medical science has become a multi-dimensional specialisation, almost daily expanding its horizon of knowledge of aetiology, diagnostic methods and treatment of diseases. But it still occasionally reels under the impact of a new and unknown pathogen like a bacterium or a virus. Since it is unknown, the immune system of the body is unable to produce a specific antigen immediately. The body is defenceless against such a sudden attack. This has happened in the case of the Coronavirus attack.
The disease first broke out in Wuhan, the capital of the Hubei province of China, last December. Since then it has spread rapidly far beyond the borders of China. At the time of writing the virus has spread to 185 countries, the total number of infected people has risen to 391, 947 and total deaths to 17,138. But the numbers are rapidly rising.
Medical experts are now saying that developing a vaccine against the Coronavirus will take a minimum of two years. By that time, the number of fatalities will be unimaginably large. It will also disrupt the world economy as well as the economy of every individual nation.
In fact, very little is known about the Coronavirus. We do not know whether the virus is aerobic, that is, it requires oxygen for its survival and proliferation; or it is anaerobic, which means it does not require oxygen for its survival and if it is anaerobe whether it is an obligate anaerobe that dies as soon as it comes in contact with oxygen or it is a facultative anaerobe that can live and multiply even in the presence of oxygen. There is another type of anaerobe called aerotolerant anaerobe, which can grow without oxygen but can use oxygen if it is present.
To develop a vaccine against a bacterium or a virus, the first thing is to know its protein structure. Multiple efforts are being made at different research laboratories in many countries to develop an anti-Coronavirus vaccine. But there are obvious limitations. Dr Peter Hotez, Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine in Houston says: "You can only speed up the animal and clinical trials so much." He goes on to say, "In the end, these steps take time. So that is going to be the rate-limiting step in determining whether there is going to be a vaccine available in time for this pandemic. Some things you can do to make this testing go a little faster, like running some of the clinical trials in parallel. But in the end, you are still taking weeks to months."
The other, non-medical aspect of the Coronavirus infection is the incalculable damage it is causing to the world economy. In our own country, educational institutions have been closed, examinations have been postponed and if the situation does not become normal soon, many students may lose a year. Also, public transport service — plying of trains, buses and planes — has been seriously affected, shops and markets are closed, hotels and restaurants have suspended their service, people are being asked to work from home, sports events have been cancelled with considerable loss to their sponsors and normal economic activity is slowing down fast. The tourism industry has suffered heavy losses. Just 25 per cent of government employees have been asked to report for duty. The full impact of all this will be known only in the due course of time. The Indian economy was not in good shape when the Coronavirus epidemic broke out. Now matters are becoming worse.
China accounts roughly for 45 per cent of India's electronic imports, one-third of machinery and about two-fifths of organic chemicals. Nearly three-fourths of India's active pharmaceutical ingredients come from China. The Chinese economy is expected to decelerate by 1-1.25 percentage points over 2020 because of less production. Its spillover impact will be on several industries in India.
Other European countries have also been affected. The worst victim is Italy. As many as 627 persons died of the Coronavirus infection in Italy on a single day. Epidemiologists agree that with every passing day, eliminating the Coronavirus seems to be getting harder.
Till a vaccine is discovered, prophylactic measures should include the widest possible use of facial masks and hand sanitisers. These masks should be readily available at affordable prices. The manufacture and sale of spurious masks and black-marketing in them should be stopped. At the same time, superstitious beliefs being spread by certain quarters that a Coronavirus attack can be prevented or cured by eating cow-dung or drinking cows' urine have to be resolutely combated. Self-quarantine of persons suspected to have contracted the virus infection is a must and has to enforced rigorously.
India runs the grave risk of having a steep rise in Coronavirus patients because of the heavy density of population, constant internal migration and high international air passenger traffic. In an interview to a TV channel, Dr Ramanan Laxminarayan, Director of the Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy (CDDEP), has said India could have 300 million cases of Coronavirus infection and 200 million in a "best-case scenario". There is no doubt that a time bomb is ticking away right in front of our face. No panic, yes. But no underestimation of the gravity of the situation either and no lowering of our guards. IPA
Views expressed are strictly personal