The Financial Express

The fight against the COVID-19 virus

Shihab Sarkar | Published: March 19, 2020 20:36:59 | Updated: March 23, 2020 20:44:42

A pharmacist gives Jennifer Haller, left, the first shot in the first-stage safety study clinical trial of a potential vaccine for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, on Monday, March 16, 2020, at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle, USA.          —Photo: AP A pharmacist gives Jennifer Haller, left, the first shot in the first-stage safety study clinical trial of a potential vaccine for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, on Monday, March 16, 2020, at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle, USA.          —Photo: AP

It comes up as a foregone conclusion. After the onslaught made by every hitherto unknown disease, mankind confronts a common scenario: the rush for discovery of a cure.  In line with this, medical researchers in different countries have lately been found engaged in desperate efforts to find a remedy for the novel coronavirus. Given the short length of time after its first strike, invention of a foolproof remedy anytime soon appears to be a race against time. Viewing specifically, the research teams' common goal is the discovery of an effective vaccine, as well as preventives targeting the virus. Of late, there have been a few highly encouraging signs. A report published in a Bangkok newspaper recently said scientists in the US and Australia had been applying their new technology in an ambitious multi-million-dollar drive to develop a vaccine for the new coronavirus, codenamed COVID-19, in record time. But the reality shows coming up with any new vaccine normally takes years. It involves a prolonged process of testing on animals, clinical trial on humans and approvals by the regulatory authorities.

In this atmosphere, several teams of experts are engaged in developing a medicine, as soon as possible, which can combat the contagious disease efficiently. Australian scientists hope "theirs could be ready in six months". But even a timeframe of six months is considered quite 'slow' by many victims given the near-havoc being wrought by the sinister virus throughout the world. Other groups of scientists are of the opinion that it might take more than a couple of years for research teams to claim to have successfully developed a medical remedy. The conclusion is contrary to other optimistic observations that it might take 18 months before a vaccine goes to the first trial stage. Normally a number of critical trials are required before a new vaccine or medicine begins to be applied to patients.

The fast incubation, preliminary outbreak and the world-wide spread of this new coronavirus is nearly unprecedented. What emerged as a least expected disruption to the Chinese who were set to celebrate their Lunar Festival in February had eventually assumed the form of a global scourge. The mutated coronavirus or novel coronavirus began spreading its ominous wings in Wuhan City in the province of Hubei in December last year. Few in the affected Chinese region suspected that the centuries-old custom of eating wild animal meat would snowball into a hazardous situation of catastrophic proportions. By the time the virus had leapt into China's close and regional neighbouring countries, the SAARS-like new contagious disease had already begun showing its terrible face. In a fortnight, almost the whole China, including Beijing and the other big cities, came under a lockdown.

The biggest annual Chinese festival thus ended up being a total national mess --- and also despair. The post-outbreak scenario included state monitoring of the citizens for the signs of the still-alien ailment, opening of special types of hospitals, various prohibitions and measures, all of which jeopardised  normal life. Cases of coronavirus-positive people in large numbers began being reported unabated from the Hubei province, punctuated by deaths. The disease at one stage began spreading to many other areas of the country. In the mainland China in mid-March, the number of deaths stood at around three thousand and two hundred.

 In the following days, a number of countries in greater Asia have fallen victim to the novel coronavirus infections and deaths. The virus by then came to be widely known as COVID-19. The first and second countries to be afflicted were South Korea and Iran. In the recent times, Iran has surpassed all Asian countries in terms of the tally of deaths from the virus. Unlike many dreadful pandemics, this virus seems to be following a course which is unpredictable. Given its present spread to all directions of the world, it can be literally considered a global scourge. Compared to it, the dreadful Ebola remained endemic to West Africa in 2014 and after. One of the features that distinguishes coronavirus from the other wide-range scourges is its fast spread to distant countries in a short time. At the moment, the virus is largely viewed with Europe being its epicentre. In the continent, Italy has emerged as the first country with the largest number of deaths from the virus as well as cases.

In terms of intensity of the COVID-19, Italy now goes past Iran. In the last couple of weeks, the country had the highest number of cases carrying the virus and fatalities after China. Spain and France follow Italy. Germany has started feeling the heat. Of the four European countries, Italy and Spain have already enforced strict lockdowns. France and Germany, and some other countries with Asian expatriates --- such as UK lately, are mulling stringent preventive steps too.

The European theatre at the moment is getting used to watching multi-pronged coronavirus-prevention measures. They include quarantine requirements, border closures, lockdowns, restrictions on large assemblages, suspension of international flights etc.  With large numbers of Bangladeshi expatriate workers in some of these countries, Dhaka has witnessed homebound exodus of them in batches. A few Gulf countries in the immediate past have alerted themselves to the feared entry of the virus. They didn't waste time, and adopted necessary steps. On the other hand, North America --- especially the USA, has lately enforced in-coming flight suspensions and a national emergency. Curfews and lockdowns have been in force in New York City and a few cities. Canada has started grappling with the scourge's feared outbreak.  In order to prevent the virus from creeping into the country, New Zealand has put into effect the imperative of self-isolation for the new arrivals. Australia watches keenly the global spread of the pandemic, besides enforcing the self-isolation requirement for suspected cases. Reports of infections also came from Chile and a few countries in South America, and Kenya and Ethiopia in East Africa. Names of Malaysia and its capital Kuala Lumpur have surfaced lately for their harsh steps.

Against the backdrop of lockdowns, curfews, restrictions of different types and temporary joblessness, the expatriate workers brace for real hard times. Many Bangladeshis have been compelled to leave their overseas job-sourcing countries like Italy. They were supposed to pass 14 days in quarantine camps near the airport in Dhaka like the people who arrived from China in March. Last week, a large batch of returnees from Italy was seen engaging in heated exchange with the authorities over mismanagement at the quarantine centre. In the melee many newly arriving expatriates have been allowed to head for their homes without having to be in 'airport quarantine'. Meanwhile, 417 stranded Bangladeshis from Saudi Arabia landed at the capital's Hazrat Shahjalal Airport on last Tuesday. An acute shortage of testing kits continues to aggravate the situation in whole Bangladesh, with the first death from COVID-19 being announced on March 18 and the number of officially confirmed COVID-19 cases hitting 17.

The novel coronavirus has made its ominous presence felt at a time when the world is tolerably free of any large man-made disasters like war. There are pockets where regional wars have been raging for a decade, with little spillover. Besides the US-China trade tiff, a few other big economic dislocations are in sight globally. But with COVID-19 claiming thousands of lives and causing disruptions to socio-economic activities, both the developed and poorer countries are being made to brace for worse times.

Coming to Bangladesh, its apparel exports are apprehended to go through jolts if the pandemic continues to ravage the importing countries indefinitely. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in a rough estimate indicates a shortfall of US$ 2.0 trillion in global income as fallout of the COVID-19 scourge. This will bring down global annual growth to below 2.5 per cent. On the other hand, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has projected that the world could lose from 0.089 per cent to 0.404 per cent of its GDP (gross domestic product) due to COVID-19. This is indeed a bleak projection. Bangladesh and many other developing countries are also included in this global calculation.

In the second decade of the 21st century, the world simply cannot let itself overwhelmed by a new type of disease. In its long history, mankind has defeated scores of killer ailments which wiped out millions in phases. Man came out triumphant by eradicating many epidemics. Given this record, the efforts to invent medicines to destroy the viruses of all kinds of diseases ought to continue without respite. Diseases and humans have been fighting each other since the dawn of civilisation.   



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