The New Coronavirus Pandemic and Preparing For the Next Viral Pandemic
It’s hard to forecast the trajectory or the overall death toll of a viral bomb without being fully aware of how it was launched. As the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) that was identified in Wuhan in China during the month of December, continues to race across the globe, the scientists all over the world are struggling to find answers to many vital questions, such as:
- How easily does this virus spread from one person to another?
- What is the real incubation period of this virus i.e., the time period during which the infected individual can transmit this virus before showing any symptoms themselves?
- What is the actual death rate of this virus?
Although, 99% of more than eighty one thousand cases and nearly roughly three thousand deaths that have been reported so far have taken place in China. However, it is impossible to know the number of individuals that have left Wuhan, a city that consists of about eleven million residents, before the authorities of China closed it. Nor are we aware of the number of people that boarded those flights without being aware that they were the ones carrying the symptoms. Where they went can only be certain when they start to show the symptoms and start getting sick.
This virus is deeply alarming, so much so that the World Health Organization (WHO) carefully named it COVID-19. This name was given in order to avoid using the names of people, any geographic locations, and even animal species – which could, in turn, lead to potential racial attacks and the uncalled for animal slaughter.
Despite the severity of this scenario, there is almost nothing that is surprising about the coronavirus pandemic. It has somewhat been predictable in every manner: from the nature of the emergence of the virus to the rapid international spreading to the clear potential of this virus to sicken people and even kill them. The surprising thing, however, here is that we are not ready for this sort of assault. The late molecular biologist, Joshua Lederberg, who also won a Nobel-prize, said “the single biggest threat to man’s dominance on this planet” – this is both his most ignored, and his best warning. The world learned in the year 1918 that there is no weapon that is as lethal as widespread which was clear when influenza killed over 50 million people.
Furthermore, these viral invasions mostly move in specific, obvious patterns. No one who has ever looked at a book on emerging of infectious diseases, or maybe, read the section in a newspaper, could have been shocked to learn that the original host of this virus were bats, or humans almost for certain acquired this virus from an intermediary species. In this scenario, they are probably pangolins, which are considered to be Earth’s most heavily trafficked animals. Pangolins are prized based on the apparent medicinal properties of their scales, and they have been said to be sold at the seafood market located in Wuhan, where this virus apparently started.
Infectious diseases that jump from animal species to humans are referred to as zoonoses. And they do it almost all the time. Most among us will remember the worldwide panic that was caused due to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or commonly abbreviated as SARS which in the year of 2002 caused the first pandemic of the millennium, though the global death toll was lesser, around 747 people. The SARS virus also originated in China and was transmitted to humans through a protein called the ACE-2 that is found on respiratory cells, which also serves to be an entry point for the COVID-19. They both are types of coronaviruses, named for the halo seen around them when seen under a microscope – and are genetically similar and both were isolated bats. The same is also applicable and true for MERS, this was transmitted via camels to humans, but this virus also originated in mammal species of bats, just as the Ebola virus as well. Another virus – Marburg, a hemorrhagic virus, was first discovered in the year 1957, was originated in Old World fruit bats.
The reason behind bats playing a rather important role in the transmission of these sorts of viruses is not very tough to wrap your head around. Bats round up to roughly 20% of the mammal species, and many of them have strangely strong immune systems that seem to be easily able to help them defend any powerful viruses. This is what makes them the ideal viral host. The various strong viruses train themselves on the immunes systems of the bats, and in this process, they become capable to defend themselves.
Yet, bats are not the only host of viruses that transmits the infection to humans. In the year of 2004, a very pathogenic type of avian influenza called H5N1, which often seems to occur naturally in wild waterfowl, but it can easily be spread to domestic poultry, jumping from chickens to humans, thereby, causing a frightful epidemic. In the year of 2009, another strain of influenza was a type of H1N1, commonly called the swine flu, as it leaped from pigs to humans – they are a common mixing vessel for the viruses as the porcine respiratory cells of theirs are similar to ours.
The chances of a spread out, such as of this transmission, it is ought to occur in places where there is seem to be a routine contact between animal species and humans, such as the live-animal markets – they are common in East Asia. For instance, if a pig is to have sneezed in an open market that is crowded, in theory, this could infect a human, thereby, setting off an epidemic. 60% of the population of the world resides in Asia.
The major reason behind these viruses posing threats is that they are new. This means that humans do not have any antibodies to defend any such viruses. The H1N1 virus that spread in the year 2009 infected about 1.4 billion people – majority of them before treatments or the vaccines for this virus were available. The year in which WHO moved as expeditiously as ever. Unless COVID-19 proves to be uniquely dangerous, it is likely to settle down in a few months. Additionally, the threats it poses will be forgotten with time, like those of SARS, avian influenza, MERS, and other zoonotic diseases. But for now, it is too soon to know for sure.
Scientists are moving at a fast pace to stop this coronavirus pandemic. They managed to sequence this virus in a time period of fewer than 2 weeks. This is a major step in creating diagnostics, vaccines, drugs, and this would have taken months if it happened years ago. If this virus were to go out of control, the death rate would have taken a hit. In addition to this death toll, the economic damage to China, and thereby, the rest of the world, would be huge.
All of this does not need to happen if we do a better job at prepping for these epidemics. Prevention always works, just as if we don’t have to wait for heart attacks to happen before we limit their risks with our knowledge, it also works with epidemics. For now, we should be focusing on improving sanitary conditions as well as regulating livestock in markets that are prone to such outbreaks, along with preparing ourselves with proper term insurance. It is important to have enough and reliable tests readily available for individuals who might have been exposed to this sort of risk. The time is now – to use modern tools for creating drugs and vaccines to protect us against such risks. Why not prepare vaccines to fight broadly the entire virus class instead of waiting for them to one by one hit us?
At some point in time, not many years down the lane, we might have the capacity to right away sequence viruses and to create and operate the test for diagnosis anywhere, not just taken place in a lab. Already, it is possible to transmit as well as print a DNA sequence with the help of a molecular equivalent of 3D printers. This process could help scientists in enabling the construction of vaccines anywhere.
There are other possible solutions such as editing the genes of bats and/or pigs to repulse the transferrable viruses from the species to humans. This kind of intervention would be extremely difficult scientifically and also ethically questionable, but it will inevitably be discussed.
Even if this coronavirus pandemic passes very quickly, there is likely to be another one, possibly one that is far more catastrophic. This could be next year, or in ten years’ time, or maybe even twenty. All we know as of now is that if there is any hope to contain the future pandemic, the time to start preparing is here and now.
It’s time to beat the coronavirus pandemic with proper sanitary measures, along with holding proper term insurance that will protect you against uncertainties of life in these unstable times.