Race for Covid cure

Swati Piramal | Updated on July 12, 2020 Published on July 12, 2020

Global cooperation has been at its best

The world is facing serious, global crises at the same time — a health crisis, a financial crisis, a leadership crisis and a moral crisis dealing with inequitable resources. What is the light at the end of the tunnel? While scientists have been quickly able to view the invisible enemy using an electron microscope, the principles of quarantine, isolation, contact tracing, masks or social distancing have not changed since the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918.

One of the great things that have happened in this pandemic is that scientists have been collaborating at the speed of sound. In the first weeks of lockdown, governments were going to invest in buying lakhs of antibody tests. A group of public health scientists collaborated with scientists in Stanford or Munich to study their results. The studies turned out to have confusing results and governments could quickly pivot to use the antibody tests as surveillance and not make the mistake of using them as a diagnostic. This saved public funds.

Clinical trials

In a similar way the results of clinical trials, and there are nearly 2,000 trials going on around the world. These are shared before peer review to get an understanding of both the efficacy and side-effects of different drugs. Sadly, there hasn’t yet been one blockbuster cure, instead it’s a combination or cocktails of drugs that are being used in intensive-care settings. Re-purposed drugs that may be used in Covid infected patients, provide the fastest opportunity to control the effects of the disease or achieve a cure.

While vaccine research is also seeing rapid collaboration, it is clear that this is a nasty virus — it isn’t easy to find a perfect vaccine. More than one concept will have to be deployed to see which part of the virus can be injected in mammalian cells to produce an immune response. If six billion people on the planet need to be immunised, it’s a certainty that there will need to be more than one vaccine manufacturer and more than one concept for attacking the virus. This will need ramping up of the supply chain of administering vaccines rapidly to the global population, including specialised glass vial containers or bio-tech production of cells in vast quantities.

The innovation needed to control the pandemic may come from different specialised fields. From the rapid deployment of pop up hospitals, to urban architecture that helps reduce density or innovations that help kill the virus on high touch surfaces, air-conditioning systems that can filter extremely tiny virus particles to stop airborne transmission — these will need rapid specialised multi-disciplinary innovation. Scientists, public health specialists, economists, engineers, architects and the medical community need to work together as never before.

Knowledge is being gathered in this pandemic at top speed so that the “what we know” changes almost daily. The health authorities also realise that their knowledge is limited and changing guidelines create confusion.

The “doctor entrepreneur’s” clinic is fighting on-the-ground in small clinics and nursing homes. It is this army that has helped control infection in the slums of Dharavi, in Mumbai. While unlocking our hotspots, these corona warriors will be the most effective soldiers in fighting the mighty battle of rebooting the economy.

The writer is with the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and is

Vice-Chairperson, Piramal Group

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Published on July 12, 2020
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