An agonising wait for the Coronavirus cure

by April 20, 2020 0 comments

Vaccines have saved the human race on numerous occasions even though their historic importance was always dwarfed by more glamorous scientific developments

As cases of the rapidly spreading Coronavirus increase, the world has come to a standstill. Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus which has so far infected over two million people and killed 154,388, has also caused some severe economic and social disruptions. Experts believe these may lead to political upheavals even after the spread is somehow neutralised.

In the line of fire are regimes who seem to be fumbling in addressing the spread of Covid-19. Over the last two weeks, the international media has specifically targetted the bombastic neo-populist regimes that came to power in various countries after 2014.

Unable to comprehend an issue which does not fit their blathering narratives, such governments in India, the UK, the US, Brazil, Hungary, Philippines, Iran and Pakistan are now constantly on the receiving end of criticism. But this does not mean that countries that seem to be doing a better job of handling the crisis know when or how this crisis will recede; they are being forced to think on their feet. Such is the elusive nature of this virus.

On March 12, Dr Zhong Nanshan, a Chinese pulmonologist who has been at the forefront of his country’s fight against the pandemic, told Reuters that the spread of Covid-19 can be “contained” by June this year but only if governments continue to enforce strict social distancing through lockdowns.

This does not mean that even if the world somehow succeeds to check the spread in the next two months, everything will automatically return to normal. First of all, what was considered to be normal before the outbreak will change, leading to a new normal. But even this won’t emerge unless an anti-Covid-19 vaccine appears.

Vaccines usually take up to 10 years to develop for mass usage. But recent advances in virology have helped scientists to greatly shave off years of required testing and launch anti-viral vaccines in much shorter periods of time.

Pharmaceutical companies working frantically in China, Europe, India and the US believe that an effective anti-Covid-19 vaccine can appear in the next 12 months. That’s still a whole year.  However, the US pharmaceutical giant Merck was able to produce a vaccine against the 1968 influenza pandemic in four months.

Vaccines have saved the human race on numerous occasions. But their historic importance always gets dwarfed by other, more glamorous scientific feats. Human beings have been victims of catastrophic viral breakouts for centuries but the first vaccine wasn’t developed till the 18th century.

In the late 18th century, a British doctor, Edward Jenner, noticed that those in England’s villages who had contracted cowpox, became immune to smallpox. For centuries, smallpox had been one of the deadliest and most painful diseases that killed millions. It was caused by a highly contagious virus. Cowpox, on the other hand, was relatively mild and not fatal.

In The Life and Death of Smallpox, Ian and Jenifer Glynn write that Jenner drew some matter from a sore of a woman suffering from cowpox. He then injected it into an eight-year-old boy who had contracted smallpox. After several days, the boy recovered. Jenner then injected the boy with matter taken from a fresh smallpox patient to see if he had developed immunity. He had. Compared to modern-day practices of lab sciences, this method seems rather cruel but in the 18th century, it turned Jenner into a celebrity.

By the 19th century, smallpox vaccination became compulsory in various European countries and in some American States. Almost a 100 years after Jenner’s discovery, a French biologist, Louis Pasteur, was successful in developing a vaccine against another painfully fatal disease, rabies. Caused by a virus that enters the human body through an infected animal bite, it can cause a horrific death. In 1885, Pasteur successfully cured a rabies case with a vaccine. He used the attenuation method, in which the virus is weakened in the lab and injected in the patient to prompt the body’s immune system to work harder.

Building on the works of Jenner and Pasteur, the 20th century saw a rapid growth in the introduction of vaccines against ailments that were once incurable and contagious. In 1914, a vaccine against typhoid became common in the US; in 1921, French bacteriologists developed a vaccine for TB; in 1939, US doctors developed a vaccine against whooping-cough; in 1954, an anti-polio vaccine was successfully tested by American scientists; in 1958, the first measles vaccine was introduced and in 1966 an anti-mumps vaccine was launched in the US.

Between the late 1960s and 1970s, robust vaccination programmes were highly successful in checking and, in some cases, eradicating the spread of some of the worst contagious diseases known to man. However, scientists have always been running a tricky race against flu viruses because they continue to mutate. This means scientists have to always be on their feet to readjust flu vaccines according to fresh mutations.

A problem governments have faced in checking the spread of contagious diseases is the continuous existence of “anti-vax” segments in some societies. These are groups within a population who are against forced vaccination. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has described them as a “threat” to public health.

The roots of this phenomenon can be traced back to the 19th century when the British Government introduced compulsory smallpox vaccination. Some groups refused to get their children vaccinated, fearing it was against their religious beliefs.

In 1926, newspapers in the US reported attacks on vaccination teams in certain conservative rural areas of the country. Even recently, anti-polio vaccination workers were attacked in some areas of Pakistan by those who believe that polio vaccines contain harmful chemicals.

According to a June 27, 2016 article in Healthline by Dr Deborah Weatherspoon, the “anti-vax” mindset is often the result of a mistrust of science in some groups who believe that pharmaceutical companies are enhancing the fear of otherwise benign diseases to sell their medicines, or that such sciences are opposed to religious beliefs, or that “natural” cures through homeopathy or other traditional means are more effective.

Among these are also some who insist that vaccines stunt the reproductive capabilities of men. Ironically, this perception is most prominent in some of the world’s most densely populated regions.

(Writer: Nadeem Paracha; Courtesy: The Pioneer)

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