-Dr. Muhmmad Amin Malik
Until recently it was all normal. The hustle and bustle of daily life, heaving streets in the city-centers, it was all fine in most parts of the world. In less than a month the world woke up to the scare of Coronavirus outbreak which has changed the course of life. The virus that originated in Wuhan city of China on Dec-31 has so far left 3 lakh sick and 11-thousand dead. Many effected countries are under Coronavirus lockdown. Shops, offices, schools, business, malls, stores are all shut and the traffic is off the roads. The places look ghost-towns, empty and deserted with eerie silence. They do not understand how this reality was imposed on them and when this whole nightmare will end. The virus has spread to more than 150 countries; the news channels flooded with information about the outbreak telecast nonstop on the issue, causing fear and panic. The WHO has already declared the Coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. People are confused, sad, anxious and helpless and don’t know when they will be able to get on with their lives. It is eerily uncertain. The disease is spreading like wildfire and there is no vaccine or some treatment for it as yet and people don’t know how deadly it actually is. The experts believe that it can affect 60% of the globe if left unchecked. Nobody in their wildest dreams would have ever thought that we will be passing through such a phase of life.
While COVID-19 spreads rapidly, more than 90% of its patients make a full recovery. The pathogen causes respiratory illness with symptoms such as a cough, fever and in more severe cases, difficulty in breathing. The viruses spread typically when an infected person coughs or sneezes, spraying droplets that can transmit the virus to anyone in close contact. The Coronavirus is named after the crown like spikes that protrude from its surface which allow the virus to bind to and infect human cells. The research has started worldwide, the scientists are rushing to find a promising candidate drugs to fight this epidemic virus that could help patients recover sooner. The world’s most powerful supercomputer called IBM’s Summit equipped with Artificial Intelligence at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in US has been pressed into services. In February, the researchers used simulations to screen through a library of 8,000 known compounds to find those which are most effective against the corona virus that are most likely to bind to the main spike protein of the corona virus to limit its ability to spread and infect host cells. These drugs included chemicals, herbal medicines and natural products that have been already approved in humans. The researchers programmed the Summit to search for a very specific type of compound in view of the Chinese researchers publishing in January a report revealing that the virus, now known as SARS-CoV-2, was similar to the Coronavirus. The summit narrowed down the list of 77-compounds in just two days which could have taken few months by normal computers.
The fight against the Coronavirus is just one example of how supercomputers have become an essential part of the process of discovery during a global outbreak of an infectious disease that has no known treatments. The Summit has nearly 4,600 nodes and with each node having computing power equivalent to the thousands of our laptops. They are like thousands of general-purpose computers all working for you on the same problem at the same time, what we call parallel computing. It takes a problem, chops it into pieces, assigns to all the individual nodes and then brings all those pieces back together to reconstitute the solution of the problem. The Summit performs 200 quadrillion calculations each second, roughly a million times more computing power than the average laptop. The simulations can examine how different variables react with different viruses and each of these individual variables can be comprised of billions of unique pieces of data. It is not certain whether any of 77-compounds will work or not. If any of the compounds work, it should be much quicker than the typical drug development process to get its approval and widespread use. If it works in animals, scientists could skip the initial safety trial in people and go straight to testing drugs for their effectiveness in those who are sick. Developing drugs is a very lengthy, complex and costly process and it is quite uncertain that a drug will actually succeed or not. It can take many years for a new medicine to reach the market from the time it was discovered. In case of Corona we may see hype in the claims of drug-making but only time will tell.
As the news about COVID-19 deaths becomes more and more widespread, people are on tenterhooks and one doesn’t know how to respond because it is something which has happened to us for the first time. There are devastating scenes from Italy. The big mistake was that at the start of the first hit, people continued to lead their lives as usual and took to the streets for work, entertainment and engagements in social gatherings. The Italian took it lightly until many thousand deaths and countless people were infected and Govt sends police to patrol streets to enforce restrictions to keep people in their houses. If the restrictions are lifted then cases will inevitably soar again. Now staying at home has become a national duty for them. The national lockdown has led to a renewed sense of unity among Italians. But people in many countries including India are still not grasping the gravity of the crisis when it has become a matter of life and death for them. Only restrictions and lockdowns of hot spots will slow the spread of Coronavirus, whether it is Kashmir or any part of India. Acting severely is the only possible way to beat the spread of the virus. Of course, we have to follow all the guidelines including the most important one of maintaining social distancing. Let us be optimistic and reassure ourselves not to lose our faith or confidence. Death is not certain, but the contagion is real.
Corona Scourge: A wake up call
-Dr. Muzaffar Shaheen
Corona virus did not emerge from nowhere. There are different theories having been put forth regarding the origin and dissemination of this novel virus; some uphold the wild life as responsible, others think cats and dogs as the source of infection to human population while some consider wild bats to be reservoir of infection but nothing has been proved, except one thing that man’s sadistic approach and manipulation of the animal world to extract benefits over the past centuries has come back to hound us. Past 30 years have witnessed a rise in emerging infectious diseases in people, 70 percent of which are considered Zoonotic, meaning they have the ability to exist in animals without producing disease in them but can be transmitted to Humans. The crash scientific experiments and research of introducing infections to laboratory as well as wild animals has for sure brought the antigenic drift of infections and a change in Parasite- Host relationship with an added effect of climate change so much so that the many basic animal infections make themselves competent to invade human populations.
Emerging and re-emerging dreadful infections that have given sleepless nights to man in the recent past such as Bird flu, Swine flu, Ebola virus, Zika virus, Dengu, SARS and now Corona virus all share one thing in common that is these infections owe their origin from animal source. Scientists believe that a chance mutation of SARS like virus occurred in Civet-Cats infected by Bats in a live animal market. Consequent upon the changes in environment, human behavior and the habitat destruction, the biosecurity threats are increasingly emerging from wild life species such as bats and birds. The world health organization (WHO) and most of the Infectious disease experts, a couple of years ago agreed that the source of the next human pandemic was likely to be zoonotic and wild life would be the prime suspect. They further said that the next dreadful pandemic might be the result of a currently unknown zoonotic agent. Since affliction of livestock with the Corona virus insult has not been reported so far, but because of its origin in wildlife, if it infects livestock too, that would add to the ongoing catastrophe all over the world. Perhaps it may not be a coincidence that the Corona virus has manifested at the very time the United Nations is trying to form a convention on Biological Diversity in order to protect what remains of the organic world. The contagion may be the karmic result of our own ignorance and disregard of the other species that started in china and spread worldwide like wildfire.
The belief is gaining ground that the present Corona infection might have come from Pangolins which are scale covered mammals kept in cages in appalling conditions in Asia, reserved for dinner menus. Most of animals in these markets are kept in extremely poor conditions, without food and water for several days. Thus the way we treat animals has a profound effect on our ecosystems and the habitat. Our balanced ecosystem is the only wealth we are left with in this age of extensive industrialization, deforestation and population explosion. Worldwide encroachment to forest land and wildlife habitat by man is not without backlash. China’s ban on wild animal trade is one silver lining in this ensuing global tragedy. It should be a permanent ban rather than a temporary one otherwise many more pernicious viruses may be in the queue waiting to feed on us not in the distant future given the climate change is upon us. It reminds me of Thomas Berry in his “Mystique of the Earth” who said- “To think that we can have viable human economy by destroying Earth economy is absurd. Indigenous people still live in a universe but we don’t- We live in an economic system.” It is bound to befall that whenever we aim at changing God’s nature either by trying to alter natural ecosystem or climate, for our economic greed it backfires on us in the shape of diseases and disasters. It is law of nature.
There should be a tirade launched by the preservationists against wildlife markets especially in China, Vietnam, Thailand and many other countries. The closure of wildlife markets has to be strongly pleaded. This will hopefully prevent not only new outbreaks in the future but also keep even more potentially virulent viruses from overwhelming the human world. We must not forget the root cause of this scourge – Man’s revolting disregard, manipulation, and over-exploitation of animal species meant for ecological balance of this material world. The ongoing extinctions of the wildlife sometime in the future is going to impact us more than world wars I and II because we have an unfathomable ecological horizon to reckon with and not just the folly of an economic system run amuck. Animals were considered cardinal, spiritual, sentient and intellectual fellows in the lives of indigenous people and several civilizations past. But as the colonial and technological powers over-ran the world indigenous people came to be treated not better than Mules or donkeys. The criminal neglect of dismantling of Nature over the last century has dropped us at a point where Globalization itself is going to be redefined and reappraised. The entire spectrum of Nature’s curriculum has to be extensively revisited time and again. Thus our relationship to the sensate world will have to reverse or we perish. The Corona virus is the tip of the Ice berg only.