Viral Pandemics

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.


Comments (17)
  • Thank you for delivering another well-researched, informative and useful blog! The fact that the world has picked livelihood over lives requires some soul searching, and definitely a serious matter not to be taken lightly. Even the well-off countries do not enjoy the luxury to reintroduce another lockdown. Then how can Bangladesh, a developing country mired with millions of challenges, afford anything close to a lockdown? In your future blog, kindly shed some light on what strategies the country could adopt and adapt to recover from the current economic slump.

  • I am an avid reader of blog that is so vividly written and I swallow the entire write up once at a time. Not only that I regularly watch out eagerly for the next episode to come. Many thanks to him for such a wonderful writing.

  • If we have noticed seriously that the infection rate among the hard laborious/ robust life style (not at all a style though), lowered income people are very very low, which is a blessing in a way as otherwise the spread would have been farther devastating in our country, Asia-Africa . This phenomenon shows some hope that if the well-off people get vaccines (by any means) for them, governments of different countries will have less burden to arrange vaccines for their total population.
    With vaccines from Russia and China , it would not be difficult to get rid of this deadly (may not be for Bangladesh) virus in a year or so. China and Russia will need some market, On the other hand governments of poor/less developed/developing countries will get those at lower value or no cost for the masses of respective country, I apprehended. ( And hopeful too).
    Thank you for your thoughts , Sir, as alway healthy food for us ,specially during this broken equilibrium positioning.
    Look forward to see more write ups.

  • Thanks a lot for writing the excellent article.Preserve the physical, chemical and biological integrity of the ecosystem, with maximum protection of public health and the environment.

    • Possibly every stone covered with regards to Covid 19.
      In depth research indeed!

    • Dear Arshi,
      Must say proudly, that your competencies of writing blogs deserve compliments of an allround1er.
      Undoubtedly, you are endowed with multiple talents which makes you so special. I found reading this blog interesting as it deals in with emotions of a pandemic. Simulteneously it provides you interesting analysis of its causes and compares with other such viruses available.It also reflects on the moral values – how civilized one must become towards mother nature and animals in order to prevent zoonotic diseases to taking a pandemic fervour. It shares strategies of Pandemics are always combated by : surveillance, interruption of infection chains and the ramping up of prevention and treatment capacity.
      Lets keep our fingers crossed for the new normal to set soon iwith an affordable covid 19 vaccine.

  • Another good reminder. Yes, its one planet health. WHO urged all nations for a pandemic preparedness plan. BD has made one. Like others its on paper. No follow up or mobilization of resources. The capacity of public health system was not increased. Now we see the consequences. Poor knowledge base of our Ministry of Health made corona pandemic a medical emergency instead of public health emergency and diverted resources otherwise. This pandemic will continue for a while and individual behaviour will shape its end point to a large extent. Our infrastructure has to address this. I hope Bti will come up with a pandemic friendly design in its future projects and address current ones. We enjoy your write up and keep us inspiring.

  • Humans will always face different pandemics from time to time. We
    may think ourselves as invincible because we have progressed so much
    scientifically, but in reality we are fragile.

  • Only wearing face mask alone can protect individual more than 65-70% with minimum physical distancing ,implementation of these can help us a lot to fight against COVID19 doing less harm to the economy.

  • Feeling great, getting the opportunity to read the another informative article from you, Where it is elaborated some of the pandemic issues with analytical databases and the consequences.
    “Pandemic” really this has gone viral.
    It’s obvious, nature will definitely take revenge. Whatever the reason behind is!!
    The world needed rest and wanted to teach lessons to the human beings.

  • Very well articulated. Write something about herd immunity, if you find time and the subject interests you. Thanks.

  • Thanks for sharing this write up. It was informative and well-researched and I do feel the same way about the environment and at the end of the day, be it COVID-19 or other deadly diseases, we must own our responsibility and act accordingly. It is alarming to learn that there are possibilities of similar viral pandemic lurking around the corner.
    I am a lawyer by profession and most lawyers have no work for the last four months. What to do to get into normal life? – Mask and social distancing are obviously helpful, but I think Corona has taught us a lot of things too (a lot to say on this) and one of those things is that, we should also try to encourage virtual hearing in court, virtual meetings for other professionals or businesses and improve the quality of our internet infrastructure. Virtual arbitration of matters can be a viable alternative too.
    I feel honoured to be a recipient of this blog and please do keep up the good work.

  • Thank you, Arshi Haider, for writing this piece and reminding us of mankind’s sacred responsibility towards all the creations of Allah, whether we like them or not. And for arguing that is the ultimate solution to pandemics. Keep up the well-researched good work! (btw, I did not realize that if you got a flu shot in 2017-18, your risk of getting covid increases. Scary.)

  • This article in the series of publications on current pandemic and likely future occurrences outlines the defeat mechanism against the viral pandemics. Not being an epidemiologist or expert on pandemics, the author has in-depth study, clear vision and affluent knowledge on the subject that he sharing with us elaborately from the begging of the outbreak of pandemic in Bangladesh. Giving an analogy of the pandemics’ past, present and future and its impact on economic and social fabrics, the author has pin pointed the root causes of pandemics. He prescribed an innate course to maintain nature particularly preserving the wildlife habitats.

    Viruses are the integral part of natural echo system and of no harm to the mankind as they encompass mainly the animals and birds specially wildlife. But the human encroachment of the wildlife habitats and destruction of the natural environment indiscriminately cause ecological imbalance paving the way to human spreading of the virus.

    Author’s study of the subject has a great signal for us. Natural phenomenon of Bangladesh, e.g. riverine character of the country has brutally been changed by the greedy people not checked by the governments. Amongst other causes rapid deforestation and unplanned urbanization causing ecological imbalance, which is disturbing the wildlife enormously make us recurring victims of floods, draughts and other calamities. Late better than never- we must take sustainable programs to preserve the nature for healthy leaving across the country contributing to global preservation of the natural environment.

  • Has the COVID 19 pandemic in Bangladesh peaked yet, or is there worse to come? I am in self-isolation but I see people socializing and being careless again.

    • Tahera, peaked or not is anyone’s guess. For now stay safe by keeping yourself isolated but within the limits of safety, try to get on with your life. That would be my suggestion.

  • Very elaborate and thorough article, Arshi. Lives and Livelihood. How do you make a choice ? I know we chose livelihood, and I am acutely aware of the necessities for doing the same, still I am at crossroads in my brain for that. However, if countries could ease up and open systematically, painting some semblance of required hygiene protocols then perhaps that a better idea than how the USA is going about it. Bangladesh, being densely populated, population lacking education and massive numbers in the informal job sector perhaps have an overwhelming load. I must say that they are faring much better than neighbouring India. Hope it eases for them also. One thing for sure, a new era has come into place. Zoom meetings, remote workplace seems to be the norm and is working quite effectively ( for some groups, of course). We must get on with our lives, but also must take the proper safety measures, so that we do not harm others. On your note about the ecological balance, I absolutely agree. Man is the greediest animal of all. We have taken over anything and everything. Now, we are taught a brutal lesson. I hope we will learn our lesson, but inwardly, I am quite sure we won’t. We have destroyed nature for our selfish reasons, and I am afraid we have forgotten how to co-exist.
    Let’s try to stay safe, pray to Allah for salvation from this crisis. Good luck. Stay well and continue to write your superb articles.

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