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Life Experience

COVID-19: A Fear of Uncertainty and Science Enigma

Prof Sarat K Dalai
Director, Institute of Science
Nirma University
Thirty five years ago when I left my native village in costal Odisha for pursuing my higher study in cities, I looked forward to the days full of optimism and hope to reach my destiny. Today I ask myself whether that was a right decision. Likewise millions of people who have left their native places located in small towns and rural villages in pursuit of their ambition and better lives seem to regret. Living in the constant fear of Corona outbreak is no easy for people throughout the world. As I try to follow the Pandemic in different parts of the world, my heart breaks. Other day while going to bed my teenager son asked me ?Is everything going to be destroyed with no human being survived on earth?? I had no good answer but saying ?Don?t worry; everything is going to be fine?. I knew that was not the right answer, but at this time drawing so called realistic or pessimistic picture of the Corona Pandemic would be unjust to younger generation who are looking forward to beautiful times ahead.

As the lockdown began in India, one of my former students living in the USA started connecting with me through email and asked me the obvious question ?How long the Corona outbreak would continue?. She thought I being an Immunologist should be able to predict that would complement the answer being sought from Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases), NIH, USA since 1985. I had the opportunity to interact with him when I did my postdoc at NIAID during 1999-2001. He is a virologist, known for his work on HIV-AIDS and has served as advisors to six presidents of the United States including current president, Mr Donald Trump. Whenever such life threatening pandemic or fear of any bioweapons comes to news, he is the first contact person in recent times being looked for advice. In last few years I have observed him doing a very good job. This time also he did his part and warned the USA Federal Government well in advance about the Corona threat. I am not sure why USA could not control this pandemic as they could do in past for SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome)-I, Swine Flu, etc. Most of the Americans think they are capable of handling such menace because of their health care system, but the outcome does not reflect it.

Now there are various opinions and theories about the genesis of COVID-19. Although most of the virologists seem to think that it is a slightly different form of the Corona-SARS-I that caused pandemic in 2002, others do not agree with it. Recently, Dr Luc Antoine Montagnier, recipient of Nobel Prize in 2008 for Co-discovery of HIV, said that COVID-19 (SARS-COVID-2) genome contains the genes from HIV and malaria parasite. Our initial thoughts on the symptoms induced by COVID-19 infection is now changing and making the diagnosis difficult. As such there is a lack of very sensitive diagnostic kits that can detect the corona infection with utmost accuracy. As I interact with the scientists dealing with vaccine, I find most of the vaccine efforts are based on the knowledge of SARS-COVID-I. With time we will come to know whether those vaccines will be able to effectively control or prevent COVID-19 infection.

Although scientifically there is a lot to learn about the virus and strategies to be developed to contain the virus, one question bothers me about the origin of this virus. About 100 years ago, world experienced the pandemic of Spanish flu. Hardly anyone from that generation still survives to share the experience, but what we have learnt from the literature is that the flu virus was from a natural source. Because it was new to human civilizations, it did a lot of harm similar to what we experience now for COVID-19. Over the years we have been able to control flu infections quite effectively by vaccines. I wonder how a flu-like virus could evolve so meticulously in animals or birds in such a manner that it would acquire the genes from another virus (i.e., HIV) and Malaria parasite. COVID-19 virus seems to be engineered in the laboratory with a deliberate attempt to kill people. It is a question in everybody?s mind ?How can biologists think of making such pathogen?. Or it is done at the behest of the rulers with particular political philosophy! So far I know every political ideology i.e. ism is based on human values and ethics. While the modus operandi might differ, the end goal for the betterment of human being hardly changes. Definitely no ideology advocates for gaining power/strength at the cost of killing people. And skilled people who help realise such practices are utterly unethical and inhuman in nature. Last century has witnessed maximum scientific innovations and technological advancement. The development of biotechnology, particularly genetic engineering is a spectacular milestone in scientific endeavor. It has provided hope and solution to many impending challenges in health and food security. Insulin used for treating type-I diabetes is the first genetic engineering product. So many drugs/biologics used for treatment of various diseases are products of biotechnology. We intend to claim that 21st century belongs to biologist; what we experience today is a slap on the scientific community.

One thing has been bothering me since I started understanding people in general; whether they are part of larger society, institution, or family. The sense of tolerance is very low, putting others into trouble comes spontaneously to mind, and not allowing individuals, society, or nation to grow to the full potential has become a symbol of strength. While knowledge and intelligence make people forward looking, the wrong practices followed in daily lives make individuals or groups of people become unethical leading to inhuman consequences. It is time that we as people and nation follow our fore fathers; strictly adhere to ethics and human values for better tomorrow. Before we vanish from the earth we must leave the good things to be practiced by our children and grandchildren.