Recently I was watching Hard Talk on BBC where Stephen Sackur interviewed the epidemiologist Dr. Ian Lipkin who was the scientific advisor of the 2011 movie Contagion. Though I have personally not seen the movie, I understand that ten years after its release, the movie has now become one of the most viewed movies on the streaming channels. Apparently, the movie predicts the COVID-19 pandemic with eerie clairvoyance. Dr Lipkin says in the interview that the film Contagion was made with the hope that it might help prevent future worldwide pandemics like the COVID-19. Obviously, the world did not pay much heed to the message of the movie.
It was not just the movie Contagion which predicted the COVID-19 pandemic. Epidemiologists have been clamouring about the risk of such diseases for ages. In 2018 a panel of experts convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) predicted a Disease X. The panel said that the illness would be caused by a pathogen never before seen in humans and would emerge from animals and would be very deadly and be able to spread between people. They predicted that this disease would cause the next world pandemic which would leave economic and social devastation in its wake. Less than two years after the report was published by WHO the Disease X showed up. It began in Wuhan China and has spread across the world infecting more than 13million and killing over 650,000 people. Some predictions for the eventual death toll are in the millions.
Panic stricken the world went into a lockdown resulting in a global economic disaster. Four months since the advent of this pandemic, with no end in sight and many countries including the USA still experiencing the highest number of new infections, the world is reluctantly and fearfully opening up. As expected, wherever the lockdowns are being eased, there is a spike in the spread of the infection. While the debate rages on about lives or livelihoods, it is obvious that livelihood has taken precedence.
In desperation the world has pinned its last hope on the vaccine. With bated breath we wait for this magic potion to save us from the deadly scourge. But are our hopes justified or are we just deluding ourselves so that there is a ray of hope and a respite from the despair that we feel? The fact is that to date man has not been able to produce a vaccine against any viral disease. There have been many viral pandemics which have periodically spread across the world – Spanish Flu, Ebola, HIV, SARS, Zika, MERs the list goes on. No vaccine has ever been created to successfully fight any of these diseases. Oxford University is today leading the worldwide research on the vaccine for COVID-19. Though a lot of hope is being given about the possible success of this endevour, so far the results are far from being conclusive. Professor Andrew Pollard who is heading the Oxford University research on the COVID-19 vaccine has himself sounded a note of caution against raising our hopes too high about the prospects of the vaccine.
One of the challenges in developing a vaccine is that the corona viruses mutate very rapidly. A recent Chinese Study “Patient-Derived Mutations Impact Pathogenicity of SARS-CoV-2”- looked at corona virus strains found in hundreds of patients and identified 30 strains, 19 of which had previously not been seen. If you vaccinate against one strain, will it protect you against the other strains? There are also theories which suggest that if you are immunized against one particular strain of coronavirus and you get infected with another strain, then the injury may be even greater. The seasonal influenza vaccine is mired in controversy because of this very reason. A Pentagon study titled “Influenza Vaccination and Respiratory Virus Interference Among Department of Defence Personnel During 2017-2018 Influenza Season” published in January 10, 2020 issue of the Vaccine Journal found that you are 36% more likely to get corona virus infection if you got the influenza vaccine in 2017 or 2018. If a COVID-19 vaccination is ever produced, receiving it may indeed increase the risk of harm from other respiratory viruses, a phenomenon known as virus interference.
Should the COVID-19 vaccine at all see the light of day which anyhow is being predicted to happen no sooner than early 2021, there would be a worldwide scramble to get the vaccine. The richer and more powerful countries would obviously come first so by the time it reaches countries like Bangladesh, we would have possibly achieved herd immunity. But just like Disease X (COVID-19), there is inevitably going to be Disease Y and Disease Z. It is estimated that there are up to 2.6 million yet unknown species of viruses that have a possible potential to cause disease in humans. Presently 1400 pathogens have been identified which are known to infect human beings. Many of the viruses are far more lethal than the COVID-19. For example, the H5N1 virus which is also known as avian flu is not transmitted so easily from human to human but in 2005, 43 out of 98 people who were infected with the H5N1 virus died. Mutation of viruses is very common and it is not beyond the realm of imagination that sometime in the future some mutated strain of the H5N1 virus could be transmitted from person to person. I hope that the powers that be wake up to the existential threat the human species is facing. I am not an expert on infectious diseases but one thing that has become obvious is that the world leaders have been caught napping. Despite all evidence, they have refused to take cognizance of the threat posed by viral pandemics. All indicators told them that the question was not whether we would face a pandemic but when it would happen. The health system in all countries rich and poor has been grossly neglected and environmental protection has been stigmatized as a left wing political agenda by nationalist leaders like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro.
Zoonotic viral diseases such as COVID-19 are mostly a result of wildlife losing its habitat due to human encroachment. Of the more than 330 diseases which emerged in the past 75 years, over 60% were zoonotic and the process seems to be accelerating as the human population grows and continues to violate the ecological balance. Viruses are a part of our ecosystem. They pose little threat to humans because they are mostly confined to other mammals and birds. It is only when we encroach on their habitats and come in close contact with wildlife that there is a higher risk of transmission of the virus to us. If we continue to harm nature by polluting the environment, recklessly increasing the carbon footprint, destroying forests and mangroves then viruses and other natural calamities will continue to plague us in some form or another. The future strains of viruses attacking us may be far more deadly. If we want to live freely in this world without fear of pandemics and natural disasters, we have to protect our environment and ensure the ecological balance. Allah the most Magnificent, created our earth as a symbol of His glory. He created human being as His viceroy on this planet. Protecting nature and the environment of our planet is a sacred responsibility which we should not take lightly.