Advanced science, Disasters - natural and man-made, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Technical

Coronavirus pandemic – opening the eyes

Human beings had been fighting against the nature, against other animals and even against other human beings for centuries; in fact, ever since human consciousness arose. In doing so, the prevailing science and technology and natural defence were the main armoury of human beings. But now this little virus called Covid-19, so little that it is invisible even to the microscopes, has brought home to human beings in no uncertain terms that human existence is at the mercy of this virus or any similar strain of virus or mutated viruses.

What is this insidious virus that has brought virtually the whole world to a standstill, that is banging the heads of ardent capitalists, committed communists, socialists, devoted Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, mullahs, ayatollahs, rabbis, priests, atheists, agnostics and all other strands of human dogmas come together to fight against it? Political, social, economic, religious divisions are now totally irrelevant against this virus. This virus does not distinguish or differentiate between the prime ministers, presidents, princes, ministers, millionaires, billionaires and destitute, paupers, street beggars etc. This virus can strike anybody at any time and that’s why it is a pandemic now.

This coronavirus is a virus – a miniscule biological entity, a microscopic parasite – that can infect living organisms. The coronavirus is a collective name for a group of viruses that covers everything from common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). The covid-19 is a particular strain of coronavirus which had popped out, or one can say evolved, only a few months ago (in late 2019) in the wholesale fish market in the city of Wuhan, China. However, Covid-19 strain is somewhat different, more aggressive and contagious than SARS or MERS. Even Covid-19 has a number of strands

This Covid-19 is a variant of SARS that can go from human to human in aerosol form and through body contacts. Although some virologists speculate that it may have jumped from animals or reptiles to humans through food chain, there is no definitive evidence to support this hypothesis. Few days ago, there had been a report that some animals in the zoo in Bronx, New York had developed coronavirus symptoms, probably due to infection from zoo-keepers. This means that this virus or some variation of this virus has the ability to jump back and forth between men and animals.

The virus consists of a nucleic acid molecule (typically RNA or even DNA) with a protein coating to protect itself and distinctive spikes at the outer surface to anchor into a particular type of human cells. As it is a virus, it hasn’t got the ability to replicate itself and multiply. Nevertheless, it does want to survive, as all genes do, by multiplying and moving from body to body to improve its chances to live. To survive and replicate, it needs to find a host cell where it can make use of host cell’s genetic material and protective coating and then it strangulates the host cell so that the host cell cannot hit back and the host cell gradually withers away and dies. This virus when multiplied many times within the safety of a host cell bursts open and spreads out and each one of them then attacks surrounding cells and the process proliferates.

The victory by the virus following the first attack is by no means a smooth affair; it’s a bloody war. When the parasitic virus attacks the body, the immune system of the body (which is a system of proteins and cells that are distributed throughout the body) responds to the invasion. These proteins include antibodies, which lock on to the bits of the virus such as the spike ‘S’ protein. It was this spike ‘S’ protein that was used by the virus in the first place to home in to the body cell and go through the cell membrane. Now this very spike is used by the defence mechanism of the body to identify and target the virus.

Thus, the immune system tries very hard to exterminate the invading virus. A life and death struggle ensue; the virus (Covid-19) knows that unless it can colonise the host cell, it will die and the host cell also knows that if the invading virus wins, it will suck life out of it and the cell will die.

Thus, the immune system tries very hard to exterminate the invading virus. A life and death struggle ensue; the virus (Covid-19) knows that unless it can colonise the host cell, it will die and the host cell also knows that if the invading virus wins, it will suck life out of it and the cell will die.

As this struggle continues, the host body – the survival machine – is blissfully unaware of what is going at the cellular level. There is no outward symptom, no discernible ill effects. It is called the asymptomatic condition meaning no symptoms. After a few days, if the body immune system wins, the invading viruses are crushed and disposed of. On the other hand, if the invading viruses start winning and keep attacking cells after cells, alarm bell starts ringing and messages go out throughout the body that it is under attack. The organs which are lost or partially lost start showing up symptoms. These are sore throat, headaches, persistent coughing as respiratory tract cells gradually become dysfunctional and high body temperature. There may be reduced functionality of other body organs. For example, there may be loss of appetite, aches and pains, dizziness etc.

The body nonetheless keeps fighting. If the invading army of viruses attack and destroy lung cells, which in turn affect alveoli sacs, breathing becomes difficult and artificial breathing using oxygen masks and, in extreme cases, ventilation units may be required to supply oxygen to the body. All is not lost even at this stage and the body can recover. It is anticipated that at least another week or so would be required to recover. However, if there are pre-existing health conditions wherein the immune system was weakened already, such as pre-existing diabetes, heart conditions, kidney problems etc., then the chances of recovery become that much difficult.

Once the viral attack has been successfully overcome, the cells of the immune system would ‘remember’ the virus and its characteristic make-up and any future attack by this virus would be immediately repelled. However, this immune system memory would not last for very long period. Normally two to three years is the maximum for this memory.

To counter this virus, a vaccine is needed to be developed. The vaccine is likely to be a harmless subcomponent of the virus, and the idea is that the vaccine would stimulate the immune system, to develop antibody by lymphocytes and get the body well prepared in anticipation of viral attack.

The presumption among the political and economic leaders of the world is that once the immediate Covid-19 pandemic is overcome and the fatality figure is brought down to nil, everything can be scaled down and life will turn normal again. The reality is likely to be far from this situation. When fatality is brought down to zero in an area or in a country, it does not mean the virus is finished; it is just contained away from human beings. It can come back at any time, despite some precautionary measures.

The graph above shows that a physical system – an earthquake, a disease, a pandemic and so on – may appear multiple times, albeit in damped condition, after the first incidence. The first peak may be much bigger than the second peak, but the second and subsequent peaks cannot be ruled out. Moreover, the time gap between the peaks would depend on the measures taken to terminate such occurrences. The Spanish Flu of 1918 is a case for pandemic example; it came back and ravaged the world number of times over a number of years. So, every precaution must be taken to counter such recurrence.

Admittedly this pandemic is causing untold misery and pain to millions or billions of people round the world. The economy of each and every country is suffering and will bear unimaginable strain due to this pandemic. The social structure is irrevocably strained: social gatherings, public performances, national and international sports and games would be severely curtailed, if not completely abandoned. The education system is at doldrum. In fact, everything that the present civilisation pursues has to be reconsidered.

But much of it, if not all of it, is due to our unbridled activities, as if there is no tomorrow. The Earth had been poisoned endlessly with greenhouse gases (CO2, NOx, CFC etc) leading to unprecedented global warming – the devastating impacts of global warming are yet to come, the Earth and the seas are endlessly exploited, the population is going up and up and within 20 to 30 years it is likely to be over 12 billion. The worst thing is that there is no recognition that we are destroying this planet.

Take, for example, the actions of Donald Trump, the president of the most powerful and flamboyant nation on Earth. He has withdrawn America from the Paris Agreement of 2016 (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) meaning that he can pursue whatever he wants to do regardless of what happens to Earth’s climate. Only about a month ago, he was dismissive of coronavirus as a common flu and asked people to have common flu precaution. Now, when thousands of Americans are dying in all major cities every day in America, he is blaming the States for not taking measures in time!

Political leaders must understand that short term measures to boost their public rating are causing long term damage to the Earth and the livelihood of common people who live on it. The leaders must be made to bear the consequences of their actions.  World order needs to be rearranged and made favourable to the Earth. Otherwise, the existence of humanity will be at stake.

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist