The Financial Express

Surprises from nowhere

Surprises from nowhere

Bangladesh is soon going to be among the countries starting their vaccination programmes early. There is a lot of optimism as well as pessimism among the people about the upcoming anti-Covid-19 immunization programme in Bangladesh. Meanwhile, the social media has come under attack from health professionals for its role in spreading what they said conspiracy theories against the vaccination drive. In fact, reports of people getting sick after vaccination or even succumbing to the reactions following inoculation is creating fear in public mind about the vaccine. While there is no scope of questioning vaccines as the best known answer available to the pandemic that humanity is faced with, still there has always been and will be the fears about any new kind of medical intervention. This is true of even people with faith in science, let alone the cynics or the superstitious ones. In fact, vaccines, as we know them since the first vaccine (small pox vaccine) was discovered by Dr Edward Jenner (1749-1823) by the end of the 18th century, they have to go through a long and complex process of trials over the years before their efficacy and safety can be ensured. In some cases, such trials may even continue for more than a decade. For what is involved here is the lives of millions people. And in all these cases the nature of the epidemic was known for long. Epidemiologists got the time to understand the disease, identify the pathogen that caused it before they could find its appropriate anti-dote. But the new pandemic, the Covid-19, did not allow scientists sufficient time to know it well. The speed at which it has spread across the globe first bringing the scientifically most advanced and proud nations to their knees, the epidemiologists and virologists were in a great hurry to knock up a vaccine to save the world from the virus's devastating impact. The world could not simply wait for too long to get a vaccine. They had, as a result, to skip certain time-consuming steps just for the sake of finding a speedy, early answer.

In this age of information, especially of social media, people get informed in no time about anything happening anywhere. So they know. But the problem is there are quarters who deliberately misinform people. Misinformation gains currency too fast on the social media. Suspicions about vaccines born of misinformation apart, vaccine manufacturers and the scientists behind the vaccines themselves have advised the would-be recipients of the jabs not to go for it if they have certain underlying medical conditions. But how many of us are really aware of what kind of allergies or other conditions we are prone to? So, before exercising due diligence, one cannot blame the people if they are not convinced, or worse, suspicious, of a new drug. What people needs is correct information and those in charge have a responsibility to keep them duly informed. People have to be allowed to make an informed decision about what they should do. It is their lives and as such the decision is theirs.

However, if humanity is to combat the pandemic, there is no other answer than vaccines. They will have to choose, and a big percentage of them, a vaccine. But then, is humanity safe once they get a vaccine? Or is the pandemic that they are at the moment faced with the only one around? The answer is no. In fact, there are, perhaps, dozens of them waiting in the wings. The problem is scientists do not exactly know which of them pose an immediate threat to humans. Where are these potential pandemics residing at the moment? They are with their hosts like the SARS CoV-2, that causes Covid-19, was, some say, with bat, while others say, with pangolin. In truth, it is hard to know in advance which animal is at the moment carrying which potential virus to cause another zoonotic disease like the Covid-19. Zoonotic diseases are the ones that jumps from one species to another. Rabies, plague, HIV, Ebola, swine flu, anthrax, bird flu, etc are some of the zoonotic diseases we know about.

Thus, scientists are not quite sure if and when the second pandemic is going to descend on us literally out of the blue. But what they are sure about is that another one or more is lurking in the shadows. It all sounds strange in an age of advanced science! In fact, in the name of progress and development, especially the modern mantra of economic growth, humanity has done an irreversible damage to nature. By destroying forests, especially rainforests, animals have been thrown out of their natural habitats. They have as a result come closer to humans. On the other hand, indiscriminate capture and poaching of these animals for consumption or to market their body parts for medicinal purposes, they have been brought too close to humans. The consequence is for all the world to see. Humans are being dangerously exposed to the zoonotic diseases. The worst part of the story is that time and research funds are in short supply for epidemiologists to identify the immediate threats from among some potential 250 such viruses they have so far been able to search out. Sadly, researches in science, medical science included, are more often than not motivated by profit. As a consequence, researches that promise quick profit draw most research funds leaving many vital, though apparently not-so-lucrative, ones out in the cold. Bad political decisions sometimes deprive such important researches of necessary funds. One such recent example is the immediate-past US president Donald Trump's 2019 decision to withdraw USAID fund from a research project called, Predict, that was listing and sequencing viruses responsible for zoonotic diseases like Covid-19. The truth is, early cataloguing and sequencing of the genetic codes of such viruses are the surest way to catch the imminent pandemic viruses before they catch humans. Though less than 4.0 billion USD would suffice to carry out the research to create a data base for these viruses, it is not forthcoming.

So, first, the organisations including governments need to set their priorities right about where their medical research funds should go. Otherwise, surprises like Covid-19 will continue to appear from nowhere.


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