Like the dawn moves across the face of the Earth in stages, we awoke, region by region, to an epic problem. While it is tempting to say that only science will provide the solution, in truth, we will need both science and the human spirit to confront and manage what the public now knows was both preventable and predictable. What the public probably does not yet realise is that the coronavirus will definitely not be the last animal-borne virus that will infect humans and cause terrifying physical and economic devastation.
Zoonosis is the term for a disease which is transmitted from animals to humans. Many animals — not just bats — are reservoirs for viruses. Every now and then, when the conditions are right with sufficient animal-human contact, or when one of the viruses develops a mutation that overcomes the human immune system, the virus makes the leap successfully. Today, everyone will agree that zoonosis is the greatest threat to human health worldwide. We are in the midst of a global public health crisis propagating at a speed and scale that no previous generation has ever witnessed, exacerbated by travel, urbanisation, reckless deforestation and intensive farming.
In the last 29 years, humans have battled three coronaviruses: SARS-CoV-1, MERS-CoV and the current coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Looking at the image of one of the main enzymes, a protease, from each one of these viruses overlaid one on top of the other, their near-perfect likeness is chilling. This is because it has been 17 years since SARS hit us, and we do not have a vaccine. As you are reading this, the best minds across the world are collaborating and assimilating what we know about this family of viruses to deliver an effective therapeutic.
We could contemplate the “might have beens” but it would be more gainful to see what we can learn from the Covid crisis. There are three things to take not of here. First, most governments reacted too late and with plans that only the well-to-do could afford to follow. The time delay between a government going from “it’s nothing” at Case 1 to “lockdown now” is a clear revelation of the importance they give science. The national fatality rates will, therefore, be a function of one parameter — how seriously the top political leadership takes the counsel of its scientific advisors.
Scientists in every nation alerted their governments with nearly identical advice to counter the impending disaster. The US and South Korea identified their first cases on the same day, January 21, 2020. But unlike the former, South Korea reacted virtually overnight, and the spread as well as fatality rates of both countries speak for themselves. It is challenging to explain something complex in simple terms to convince the government and the public that solutions are within our grasp if we act in time. A powerful communication plan — indeed, a campaign — has to be put in place to inform and educate without sending the audience into denial.
Second, viruses mutate quickly and can evolve resistance to existing therapies. So, for each new zoonosis, we will need to develop new tests, new therapies, and new public health strategies depending on how the virus spreads. In fact, many viruses infect niche populations, and so every zoonosis may not elicit a global response like this one did. Therefore, each country needs to build and tone its scientific muscle, since the requisite high-tech capabilities simply cannot be recreated overnight.
We have to constantly renew and advance capabilities in our frontline defence systems against zoonoses. We need to identify, train and support researchers who can build rapid, accurate and cheap diagnostics, tracking technologies, epidemiology, structural biology, vaccine development, drug screening, to name just a few.
Boost scientific research
Finally, it is a wise government that sees the benefit in being proactive rather than reactive. This crisis calls for governments to think long term and fuel basic science on a war-footing. However, the limitation with democracies is that leaders are generally pegged to a five-year vision. Why the urgency to think long term? There are approximately 260 known viruses that infect humans — most are zoonotic.
The Global Viriome Project estimates the existence of 600,000-800,000 viruses that can infect humans and potentially cause a pandemic. The $2-trillion stimulus package for the economy announced by the US government tops the funds allocated to science for all years combined for that country. A heavy price indeed, especially considering that had a slightly more significant fraction had been allocated to science, it could have made us battle-ready by providing effective countermeasures.
Here’s just one thought for why basic science might prove game-changing in our battle against zoonosis. Bats can clearly harbour thousands of constantly mutating viruses, while we humans struggle against a few hundred.
There are 1,300 bat species comprising 20 per cent of all known mammalian species and they are the only mammals capable of flight. They violate the correlation between body mass and longevity observed in all other mammals. Despite these and other exceptional qualities, bats are grossly understudied. Would it not be helpful to know precisely what in their immune system allows them to live with these viruses? What if we could understand the mechanisms bats use? What if we could coax our own immune systems to use those mechanisms, beat zoonoses and turn pandemics into a thing of the past?
Games and wars are not won only in the stadium or on the battlefield. Indeed, they are won much before they are fought. This pandemic can and will recur in some other form. Only preparedness will help us stop it in its tracks the next time. To paraphrase Churchill: Give us the tools and we will finish the job.
The writer is a professor at the University of Chicago. She was awarded the Infosys Prize in 2017. The article was commissioned by the Infosys Science Foundation