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OP-ED: The beginning of the end

  • Published at 08:47 pm September 2nd, 2020
Earth destroy
Photo: PIXABAY

Pandemics such as Covid-19 are a product of human mistreatment of the planet

The viral ailment Covid-19 has infected humanity worldwide in the past three-quarters of the year. However, the virus causing the infection, the SARS-COV-2, has been known to be around for many decades. 

The disease had afflicted animals until the early part of the new millennium, when the animal-human barrier was dramatically disrupted, and the SARS-COV-1 outbreak swept through China. Fortunately for us, the virus then was contained by the prompt action of the World Health Organization (WHO), preventing the spread and thus neutralizing the potential of the virus to kill millions. 

Humanity has not been so lucky this time, and the virus has swept through our planet like a field-fire, infecting over 25 million people over the continents and causing over 860,000 deaths in the nine months since it embarked on its mission to destroy life back in December 2019. It has brought on untold human misery, devastating disruption, and colossal fatality. 

A disregard for other life forms

The process of soul-searching has started, and the brutal and selfish disregard for Mother Earth and other life forms on it is now regarded as the principal cause for such human devastation. Scientists believe that it is not the Earth we need to be concerned about, as it has existed for more than 4.5 billion years and will continue to exist in its own way.

However, whether the planet would have the optimum milieu to sustain human life on it depends on the measures humanity adapts to retain the climatic conditions conducive to sustaining human life on Earth. 

It is not the future of the Earth, but that of humanity that has radically been threatened, consequent to the Industrial Revolution that resulted in the destruction of the soil and gradually other essentials of our environment. Phenomena such as our carbon footprint, the melting of the polar caps, the rise in global temperature -- all are hurting the soul of the eco-system that is meant to protect and sustain life on Earth.

The long existence of the dinosaurs speaks of the enormity of the success of any life form living within the opportune Earth atmosphere. They disappeared into oblivion about 65 million years ago after surviving for 165 million years. Humanity has existed for only about 200,000 years, and our existence is already being threatened, prophesying the potential for human extinction. 

What the future holds

So, humanity would have to plan now if we hope to exist on Earth for any length of time in the future. Of course, along with the struggle for existence, we have to try to overcome the current pandemic too. 

But humanity seems to be failing miserably in showing any signs so far that demonstrates such a change of heart and mind that is expected and demanded of an endangered species, heralding the dawn for a better providence.

If I may come back to the on-going menace of Covid-19 that so far reflects my apprehension of foregoing the fortuity of saving our species, the development of an effective vaccine is at the forefront of our battle against the peril of the present viral pandemic. 

Not surprisingly, there is already mendacity in action for political motivation and profitability, that had and continues to threaten our existence. The race for development of a vaccine started soon after the genome sequence of the virus was published in January this year, and the first disclosure of a potential vaccine was announced in March, followed by a number of institutions entering the stage of the vaccine development.

Vaccine race turns sour

What started as a genuine collaborative but competitive effort for the rapid development of a life-saving vaccine now has the possibility to sink into disrepute. Researchers and institutions have accused Russia and China of hacking into the confidential data of research groups in other countries. 

There are also mounting criticisms directed at Biotech executives for cashing in on yet unapproved vaccines. Finally, Russia’s approval of the use of vaccines produced in their country for use without completion of research into effectiveness and safety have turned the vaccine race sour. 

Governments in different countries are also exerting undue pressure on the scientific community, insisting on producing the vaccine without delay in order to avoid economic catastrophe. China has approved mass vaccination of its military before proper completion of phase III trial of its vaccine. 

A proposal in the United States by scientists of John Hopkins University to roll out vaccinations of a large number of volunteers prior to completion of clinical trial was faced with widespread criticism forcing the recantation of the plan. 

Russia had named its vaccine “Sputnik V” and had registered in the public database only 100 people for phase I and phase II. Without any result of that phase I and phase II trial being published and without announcing any information about phase III trial on whether it had even started or not, the Russian government had approved the use of the vaccine as a fully developed product. The drug safety standards in Russia are highly questionable, and fall well short, below the average standard set by the WHO.

The protocol for the development of a vaccine is well-established. The different phases of trial are absolutely important and any short-cuts or compromises in following the stringent steps of the approval, production, and mass immunization may, in the short term, harm millions of the human population and damage the acceptability of the vaccine in the long run.

Historical shortcomings

With the United States presidential election in November, the political pressure for the development of a vaccine before the election is mounting. A number of issues raise significant concerns in the minds of the scientific community when it comes to the rapid development of a SARS-COV-2 vaccine. 

There is a huge gap in our knowledge of coronaviruses. It is nearly 17 years since the severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS-COV-1, epidemic, and seven years since the detection of Middle East respiratory syndrome, MERS. 

The scientific community has failed to develop any vaccine against either SARS or MERS viruses despite a multiplicity of austere attempts. There is the phenomenon known as ADE -- antibody-dependent enhancement -- that imparts severe Covid-19 infection in the receiver of the vaccine, when the individual becomes inflicted by the virus after being immunized by the vaccine, and often may result in fatality. 

Hence if the vaccine gets approved and the subsequent monitoring of the population is poor, as is the case in the developing economies, the harm may be detected after years when substantial health harm may already have been imparted. 

Though it is customary to run phase III of the vaccine trial after phase II, both WHO and the Consortium for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation, CEPI, who help coordinate vaccine development in this pandemic, have endorsed the simultaneous running of phase II and III trial with the policy under the “pandemic paradigm.” 

This policy is risky from the point of expense and economic risk. However, both organizations believe that the risk is worth taking of the public fund being utilized, as its success would bring far greater benefit. 

Many others are of the opinion that short-cuts in testing for the safety and efficacy of a vaccine may endanger millions of lives in the near future and will damage public confidence in vaccines and in science in the long run. 

The Oxford Vaccine Group is running both phase II and III simultaneously as they believe that though they are not strictly adhering to the sequential advancement protocol of the standard vaccine trial, the usual checks and balances will still be followed prior to the widespread use of the vaccine. 

In many such situations, financial incentives are playing a bigger role than the public interest in the minds of corporate people involved with vaccine development.

With the coronavirus pandemic blazing through the trans-continental planes, devastating life, ailing millions of people physically, mentally, and socially, dismantling every infrastructure, destroying the economy, business, and financial institutions, humanity must wake up to the challenges with collaboration, camaraderie, partnership, and participation to safeguard our destiny and stop the slide of our species into oblivion.

Dr Raqibul Mohammad Anwar is Specialist Surgeon and Global Health Policy and Planning Expert, and Retired Colonel, Royal Army Medical Corps, UK Armed Forces.

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