On Christmas Eve, 2019, when the whole world was rejoicing to the sound of carol and drums, no one had the faintest idea that a pathological discovery in China would change the course of humanity’s history in this century forever.
A clinical sample from a patient suffering an unresolved case in Wuhan Central Hospital was sent for testing in the Vision Medicals, and unluckily, it turned out to be the new coronavirus which somehow got transmitted to humans. Although the Chinese authorities struck down the claim published by one of its news outlets Caixin, it was retrieved outside China and published online.
On 31 December, 2019, China informed the World Health Organization (WHO) of a cluster of cases of pneumonia from unknown cause in Wuhan City in Hubei province and on 9 January, 2020, the WHO issued a statement saying Chinese researchers have made “preliminary determination” of the virus as a novel coronavirus.
Although in the early days, with sheer ignorance and less information, everyone outside China laughed it off as seasonal flu, citing half-baked information published on media outlets regarding mortality rates and its infectivity. If the apocalyptic nature of the virus would’ve been foreseen, then perhaps the world wouldn’t have descended into such dismay. But it’s also worth mentioning that accurate information regarding seasonal flu before pre-corona days would’ve somehow lessened the trail of destruction, unlike the present days.
On 23 January, North Korea became the first country to adopt measures to contain the virus by closing its entire border with China, followed by the United States of America issuing a Level 4 travel advisory for all of China on 30 January. Other countries followed suit. On 31 January, Mongolia closed its border with China and Singapore announced a ban on Chinese visitors. Then on 4 February, Taiwan announced a ban on foreign nationals who had been to China.
But the travel restrictions and border closures fell short of the speed at which the coronavirus travelled across nations and infected millions, all thanks to the interconnected world which had very little concern for the impending crisis which scientists have been warning about for decades.
Coronavirus is a large family of viruses and its earlier strains have caused Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002 and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012, which are still prevalent in some pockets of the world. It’s Zoonotic in origin, i.e. it has its origins in animals. We can think of it as the ticks and mites which we get from our pets, except, when we get a virus, we cannot just wash it off.
The strain of coronavirus infecting humans was named SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) by a coronavirus group from the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, which was announced by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of WHO on 11 March. And on the same day, a 100 years after the deadly Spanish flu, the WHO in a press-briefing declared Covid-19 a pandemic; a scientific term for a disease that has spread worldwide.
There are widespread speculations and fierce debate among scientists as to the origin of Covid-19, but owing to the report published by Robert G Webster, the most weighted theory of origin is attributed to a wet market in Wuhan, called the Wuhan Seafood Wholesale Market. Wet markets of China are already infamous for their role in the origin of infectious disease, owing to the sale of exotic and rare species of animals, reptiles, amphibians and pisces for human consumption. SARS is also attributed to a wet market in China and also served as a warning of a future outbreak from the same wet markets.
More precisely, according to researchers from Yunnan University, Covid-19 had a four channelled transmission into humans. The published report theorizes that somehow bats, which are a reservoir of such viruses, transmitted it to pangolins and the infected pangolins came into contact with humans at the Wuhan Seafood Wholesale Market.
Till date, according to reports published in medical journals and general news outlets, Covid-19 is found to transmit its viral particles through two ways:
So, this disease can seriously make anyone paranoid about their environment and the people around them. It thus leads to words like social distancing into people’s everyday jargon.
Other information about Covid-19 is its incubation period. The incubation period is the time required by the virus to reproduce and invade healthy living cells of the human body. In the case of Covid-19, the incubation period is 14 days.
The most serious property of the virus is its pathogenicity, which in layman’s term is the power to cause disease. Research in leading labs over the world shows that this virus moves down the respiratory tract into the lungs to infect the tiny air sacs (called alveoli), thus developing pneumonia. But multiple other types of research show complications in the infectivity of Covid-19, which includes some patients whose brains have also been infected, and in some, a trigger for Type-2 Diabetes. The complete picture of Covid-19 will only be visible in a year’s time.
A very worrying trend about Covid-19 is its bivalent nature of infection; it’s both symptomatic and asymptomatic. Symptomatic infections include fever, cough, shortness of breath, trouble breathing, fatigue, chills, body aches, headache, sore throat, loss of taste, loss of smell, nausea and diarrhoea.
“Prevention is better than cure”.
The advice by the WHO includes social distancing of up to 1m, continuous washing of hands with soap when visibly dirty or contaminated with proteinaceous material for 40–60 seconds and use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers with 70% alcohol for 20–30 seconds.
The diagnosis of Covid-19 is made through the screening of swab samples using a bio-medical technique called rtPCR (Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction). Although it shows a high degree of accuracy, the cost and time required is enormous and has made it really challenging in developing countries with huge populations.
No drug has been completely promising in the treatment of this virus, but some medicines have come to the frontline with a considerable impact. The very first name to the rescue is a very common name among the Malaria hotbeds in tropical countries, Hydroxychloroquine. Early clinical trials conducted by the National Institute of Health, U.S., showed it to be considerably effective among anti-viral drugs.
India being the lead producer of this drug with 70% of world’s production, played a significant role in the export of this drug. But the Food and Drug Administration of the U.S. revoked the use of Hydroxychloroquine outside of a hospital setting due to heart rhythm problems.
The next thing that came to the rescue was the Convalescent Plasma Technology. It’s classic adoptive immunotherapy, a temporary vaccine, only instead of antibodies, it utilizes the plasma separated from blood taken from recovered patients. It has been applied to many infectious diseases before like SARS, MERS and the H1N1 virus. Statistical analysis showed a significant drop in the mortality rate among patients.
The latest drug to enter the frontline is Dexamethasone, which is a low-dose steroid generally used to reduce inflammation in a range of other conditions, including arthritis, asthma and other skin conditions. It’s relatively cheap and cuts the risk of death by a third for patients on ventilators.
A 2013 study found that between 1998 and 2009, the average time taken to develop a vaccine was 10.7 years. However, with improvements in biomedical technology and extensive use of computational techniques, the Ebola vaccine became the fastest-developed vaccine ever, being produced in just 5 years. However, in the case of Covid-19, the scientific community has seen a challenge, unlike any other in their lifetimes. While Ebola was restricted to just a pocket of African countries and relatively fewer numbers, Covid-19 has engulfed almost every corner of the globe and infected millions.
With such an unprecedented crisis, the entire world community is hoping for a vaccine at the earliest. While to the dismay of the general population, the leading scientists are highly sceptical of the time required. Some institutes and companies are hopeful of producing a vaccine by the year’s end, while some leading vaccinologists believe that it might take a year or two.
A total of 114 candidate vaccines are in the race to end this pandemic. Some of the contenders making headlines are making big claims on the effectiveness of their vaccines and are hopeful of developing it by the year’s end.
The first one is being developed by The University of Oxford in conjunction with AstraZeneca and it began its trial on humans. The next one is by a U.S. firm Moderna Inc., and it is set to conduct final-stage trials and hopes to have it ready by early 2021. Some of the other names include one by the Imperial College of London; Pfizer-BNTECH, Novavax, Johnson and Johnson, CanSino Biologics, Sinovac Biotech, CureVac.
While healthcare workers continue to be on the frontline, everyone hoped for a unified consensus and fight. But contrary to everyone’s wish, a huge group of people from all walks of life including politicians, media persons and common people have gone against the tide and spewed conspiracy theories, refused the lockdown, attacked doctors, nurses and even the police. Perhaps the Covid-19 crisis makes us realize that a world community fractured on so many lines can’t suddenly unite, even amid a pandemic.
The very first person to blow the trumpet was the President of the United States, Donald Trump. On 6 May, according to a report published by Reuters, Donald Trump urged China to be more transparent on the origin of Covid-19 and warned of holding China accountable. Then, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that there was a significant amount of evidence that it emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Trump went a step ahead and on 30 May and announced that the U.S. would end its support for the WHO, citing bias over China.
But there is one theory by Nobel Prize Winner Luc Montagnier which cannot be rejected straightway. He claimed on-air that Covid-19 was created in China’s lab as a vaccine against AIDS and that an industrial accident might have leaked it to the outer environment. However, many scientists called his claims baseless. A major drawback of these made-up theories and a taunt on the food habits of some communities is that it shifted our attention from the real problem.
While the world should have fought against this virus as one community, these allegations led to attacks and harassments on the Asian community in Western countries. Even in India, there are multiple reports of harassment of students, working professionals and residents of North-East origin in mainland India. Also, the attack on doctors, nurses and paramedics in our country disheartens and angers every law-abiding citizen of this country. The administration should take cognizance of this.
Finally, as the scientific community races for a vaccine, the general populace should extend support and cooperate with the medics and administration. Plus, the new norm of social distancing and wearing of masks should be mandatory everywhere and taken as the new normal. Only then will Covid-19 fade away for the time being.