Waiting for the fluke
People who promised us a COVID-19 vaccine in a few months are now detracting and backing off. After trying for a few months, they admit they are nowhere close to it. When and why did we throw in the towel?
This week, I was planning to talk telecom. Again. For, due credit be given, I have run my home and hearth because of this sector in a rather royal fashion for nearly a decade-and-a-half. It has treated me well. And it could be a shining star again, with the relief granted this week on due payments to the Government by the Hon'ble Supreme Court.
I moved out of the sector a year back, and it was fine for a bit. It was time to start unravelling the remainder of my life. And for a few months, it was fun. My better half and I travelled, joked, laughed and made merry in the early stages of premature retirement.
Then, suddenly, everything hit rock-bottom for the telecom sector and for the country as a whole in the space of a few months. We were heart-broken. As sectoral zeniths, you couldn't consider as anything but pure gold hit rock-bottom. One after the other. And while we still traversed our new-found freedom in India's pristine mountains and highways, the world began to break apart. My friends, ex-colleagues, bosses and office staff — were all suddenly in peril. As was I.
One last kick in my life
A few months prior to this, a dear friend and the editor of one of the most appealing and relevant newspapers asked me to write a column on the telecom sector. I acquiesced because there was no saying any to him. Because I love him and writing, in that order. Unbeknownst to me, he was giving me my 'kick'. And what a kick it was, for me and for every which one in this here now planet. I had promised him I would write one column. I broke that promise a week later. And again. And then again. He was kind. He indulged me. He still does.
Today, I break that promise again. Why? Because there are serious things at play. And few of us are talking straight. Big things happening here, fellas. Things that threaten your and my very existence in our now-christened 'here now planet'. Thus, today, perhaps because no one else does so, let's talk freely and openly. And let's face and embrace the consequences, as they may turn out to be.
COVID-19 cure: Some facts
My normally petulant nostrils first got flared on this issue a few days back when I heard a fellow scribe orate that the Indian Institute of Technology was pulling out of the race to create a vaccine. Whoa; why — IIT? Yes. The IIT Alumni Council recently withdrew from the development of a COVID-19 vaccine with immediate effect, stating that none of the claims it received were adequately-backed by disclosed scientific data, patient research and clinical trials.
"The IIT Alumni Council team concluded that developing a vaccine based on conventional research and clinical trials takes several years. Even then there is no certainty (of success). For example, even after 28 years and over $100 billion of funding, an HIV AIDS vaccine is yet to succeed," Ravi Sharma, President of the IIT Alumni Council, said. "Commercialising a vaccine within a few weeks or months should not be done, (given the) safety aspects. The first logical step to developing a universal vaccine is accelerating research using simulation in preference to actual patient trials. It may not be advisable to subsidise or mass-deploy a vaccine whose safety and long-term efficacy is unproven." Well said, and Jai Hind.
Incidentally, developing a vaccine in six months was part of the IIT Alumni Council's C-19 Task Force. But they pulled out.
So what's the real score?
Well, it is then all about Diego Maradona, and the 'hand of God'. On June 22, 1986, during the Football World Cup in Mexico, a goal was scored by Maradona for Argentina against England, using the now-notorious 'hand of God' technique. Today, we need that hand of God. Something to save a country. Save a nation. Save the world.
The anti-COVID-19 score, by the way, is dismal. Here is a list.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there are around 170 COVID-19 vaccines in development globally, but only a handful are nearing final stages of testing. Amongst the front-runners are the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca Plc And then we have experimental shots from Pfizer Inc and its partner BioNTech SE, as well as Moderna Inc. More? Sure. China National Pharmaceutical Group Co, or Sinopharm, has a vaccine in Phase 3 of development. Another Chinese company, CanSino Biologics, is commencing pivotal testing soon. Final-stage testing is also underway in the United States with a 30,000-person trial that could yield interim results shortly.
But no one knows. Hence, the hand of God.
Everyone and everything is curdling. Cringing. And the scientists and vaccinologists are butting out, one by one. A month back, we had the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) saying that India would have a daily tally of 2.9 lakh new COVID-19-positive patients by end-February 2021. Then, at 12,000 new patients each day, we scoffed. Today, we are at above 80,000 each day. And the MIT due-date is six months away. They obviously know something we refuse to acknowledge.
Can we prevent this?
I don't really know. I do know some scientists who tell me that they don't really know what to do. "Most people who promised a COVID-19 vaccine in a few months are now detracting and backing off. After trying for a few months, they are nowhere close," they say. We are talking about the most learned vaccine specialists, they seem to be ready to give up today — on science and on us. Ask them why and they talk SARS, MERS and EBOLA, where 12 years and beyond, there's no vaccine. They admit they are running asunder, scared and resigned.
But there's a silver lining, if we back off a bit.
Louis Pasteur anyone? He was born on 27 December 1822 in France and discovered a rabies outbreak spread by the bites of rabid animals in 1831, when he was 9 years old. After completing his Bachelor of Arts and Science degrees a decade later, he started teaching chemistry at 20 years of age. A French microbiologist and chemist, Pasteur, was celebrated for discoveries of the principles of vaccination, microbial fermentation and pasteurisation. Importantly, he invented the technique of treating milk and wine to stop bacterial contamination, a process now called pasteurisation. He gave us Amul butter.
But the pandemics prevailed even then…
Pasteur or not, in real life today, it takes time to make a vaccine and that's the reason why virology manufacturers today are trying to buy facilities and team up with manufacturing units, as they want to be get-set-go to make the vaccine in the market the moment it is proven safe and effective, or even before, given this once-in-a-century pandemic we are confronted with. Risk manufacturing is at play today.
The process of regulation takes time. It takes time to review the dossiers, it takes time to get the vaccine licensed, and once the vaccine is licensed, it takes time to figure out the logistics of distribution.
It also needs faith. And prayers.
What is a vaccine? It is something we are praying for and which is not happening anytime soon. Let's face it. You, your children and loved ones, and I are not going to receive it anytime soon. So what is the remedy then?
A man told me two decades back 'chalta reh, sab theek ho jaayega' (keep walking, all shall be fine). That's the nature of this Coronavirus. It shall get your goat, but don't let it get your heart. We are all in the same boat, and the heart seems to be robust. Don't know about the bakri (goat). It shall
be fine. Perhaps melodious. Perhaps not.
But we have to walk on. And walk on we shall.
The fact that some scientists have given up should not deter us. The human denominator has been the strongest. I could list you a lengthening list of possible COVID-19 vaccine creators. But that is not what this column is about. It is about faith. Belief. And recalcitrance. We shall bounce back. Thrive. And swing on our 'jhoolas' again. Without fear.
Here is to 'jhoolas'. And to cherished childhood memories.
The writer is a business analyst and communications specialist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org