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The Novel Coronavirus Pandemic at the Age of Biotechnology

By Usman Hadeeza
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It feels like we all are part of an apocalyptic movie; one with a science-fictional origin. It is perplexing how this is not fiction but our reality. See how “Birdbox” was all like “you see It, you die”, ours is more like “you inhale it or touch it, you get it.”

With 465,915 confirmed cases in 200 countries and 21,031 confirmed deaths as of the 26th of March, much is still unknown and misunderstood about the novel COVID-19 virus, especially by the commoners. These numbers are overwhelming and health care systems around the world have been stretched already.

The novel Coronavirus, which was officially named COVID-19 by the World Health Organization closely resembles the SARS virus and also relates, but less closely to the MERS virus. This virus is more infectious, mainly transmitted via aerosols, but can also be contracted by touching objects or surfaces touched by asymptomatic infected people. Could this be a form of bio-warfare caused by nature itself or the sinister side of biotechnology?

The recent revolution in biotechnology, molecular biology, medicine and other technologies developed across multiple disciplines in the biological sciences has led to the production of a third category biological warfare agents termed “advanced biological warfare agents” – weapons whose effects, could be argued, are deadly, more sophisticated and arduous to curtail than nuclear arsenals and chemical agents alike.

Biological weapons or biological warfare agents are microorganisms (natural or genetically modified), and toxins, generally of microbial, plant or animal origin used to produce disease and death in humans, livestock and crops. The weapons can be viral, bacterial, fungal, rickettsial, and protozoan. The agents can mutate, reproduce, multiply, and spread over a large geographical terrain by wind, water, and by an insect, animal, and human transmission.

Desirable biological weapons are characterized by low visibility, high potency, substantial accessibility and relatively easy delivery (as an aerosol with particle diameter size 1-5μm), which screams “COVID-19.” These advanced biological warfare agents could be rationally engineered to target specific human biological systems such as the cardiovascular, immunological, neurological, and gastrointestinal systems at the molecular level; also echoing “COVID-19.”

Albeit rumours that the COVID-19 is man-made, scientists have debunked this theory, with the most recent rebuttal coming from Tina Hesman Saey, a geneticist-turned-science writer who writes for Science News. The similarity of the virus to Bat and Pangolin viruses is some of the best evidence that the virus is natural. It looks more like an animal spillover into humans; where a virus in one specie gains an increased host range and affects a wide range of species. Researchers still are not sure exactly which animal was the source, though, it might be argued that the virus attained an increased virulence after the spillover. All told, we are in the “age of biotechnology” where we might likely continue to be threatened by several other advanced bio-warfare agents or a stockpile of the natural bio-warfare agents.

In the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the most pressing question was: Is a vaccine available? Well, scientists are still at work, human trials will begin imminently, but even if they go well, there are many hurdles before global immunization is feasible. Clinical trials, an essential precursor to regulatory approval, usually take place in three phases.

The first, involving a few dozen healthy volunteers to be administered. This phase tests the vaccine for safety, and also monitors for adverse effects. The second, involving several hundred people, usually in a part of the world affected by the disease to look at how effective the vaccine is, and the third does the same, but in a larger population and demographics that could run into the thousands.

However, there’s a high level of attrition as experimental vaccines pass through these phases. “Not all horses that leave the starting gate will finish the race,” says Bruce Gellin, who runs the global immunization programme for the Washington DC-based nonprofit, the Sabin Vaccine Institute. “Screening out duds is essential, which is why clinical trials can’t be skipped or hurried”, The Guardian wrote.

As Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization said: “Asking people to stay at home and shutting down population movement is buying time and reducing the pressure on health systems.” Our best hope is to contain the disease as far as possible.

Until then, practice social distancing, wash your hands regularly, stay home and be safe.

Usman Hadeeza studied Biotechnology at the Modibbo Adama University of Technology, Yola. She can be reached on [email protected]

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Usman Hadeeza and do not necessarily reflect those of The Nigerian Voice. The Nigerian Voice will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."