It is not the last, or the worst, says virologist Dr Ian Lipkin, of the novel coronavirus that has dealt a massive human and economic cost on countries.

Lipkin has become a familiar name in the non-scientific world as well because of his role as scientific-advisor to the film “Contagion”, that has been downloaded more now than when it was released, he said, delivering the Third Yusuf Hamied Distinguished Lecture hosted by Columbia Global Centres (Mumbai) and the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

Talking about the many unknown viruses out there, he said, Covid was a “drop in the bucket”. And from a death and destruction standpoint, it would “dwarf” all that is known till date.

For that very reason, the world needs to be prepared for the next pandemic-creating virus or bacteria, he said, outlining the public-health-oriented initiative he heads called GIDEoN (Global Infectious Disease Epidemiology Network). It involved gathering data from across countries, sharing it and facilitating clinical trials and vaccine development, he explained.

It was to try and understand what is happening where, a “medical intelligence“ of sorts, he said, responding to a query from BusinessLine on how the initiative would differ from CEPI (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations). CEPI plays an important role and helps the world develop vaccines, Gideon will work with CEPI, he said. Lipkin is the John Snow Professor of Epidemiology and Director for the Center of Infection and Immunity with the Columbia Mailman School.

Climate change

Pointing to why the world was going to see more health crises, Lipkin said, climate change was a huge factor, besides reducing habitats and changing temperatures that make it conducive for diseases to spread. In a connected world of air travel, meat products and a legal and illegal trade of wildlife, he said, “anything that emerges anywhere in the world is a threat to the entire world.”

Lipkin, who’s been associated with India since 1995, said GIDEoN was looking for a partner in India, as well. GIDEoN got an initial funding from Jeffrey Skoll, the first president of eBay, he said, who incidentally had also supported the film ‘Contagion.’

Countries & Covid

Fielding queries on the World Health Organisation’s approach to China, he said, WHO was in a “challenging” position as it had to be invited to a country to get a ground report. In fact, the virus had surprised most in the scientific community, said Lipkin, who had been to China in January. In a matter of weeks the situation had changed from a virus that did not transmit between humans to one that did, he recounted. In such situations, he explained, GIDEoN would be able to visit a country and work with people across the table and not be seen as a threat.

India had not done well on the testing front, but then few others have, he said, pointing to the few good examples of South Korea and Germany, for example. The situation in India is “devastating”, he said, pointing to a similar reality in New York where healthcare workers were under tremendous pressure. Unlike China, that was able to effect a complete lockdown, countries like India and the US, being democracies faced a tougher situation, he observed.