The virus, SARS-Cov2, inadvertently infected a human being and the rest as they say is 2020. While all spheres of human activity in the global village were affected, so was science. But being what it is, science also enabled the rebound to happen within a year, with consequences for itself and the world.
With due apologies to Charles Dickens — mutating like the virus — his words from the Tale of Two cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the year of wisdom, it was the year of foolishness, it was the period of belief, it was the period of incredulity, it was the wave of darkness, it was the wave of light, it was the season of virus, it was the season of science.”
COVID, COVID everywhere…
Unlike the influenza pandemic of 1918, the COVID-19 pandemic was spread by the growth of technology that quickly enabled people to fly the virus across the globe. On the other hand, we had the social media, information technologies and communication networks causing an unprecedented infodemic.
On December 31, 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported an occurrence of viral pneumonia of unknown causes in Wuhan, China, based on the Municipal Commission notice. On January 5, 2020, the WHO put out the first disease outbreak news report and then four days later, on January 9, announced that China had identified that the Wuhan outbreak was due to a novel coronavirus.
Two days later, on January 11, the first death due to the virus happened in Wuhan and, importantly, the genetic sequence of the virus was also made available publicly. On January 13, the first case outside China was found — in Thailand. On January 16, the first epidemiological alert was made providing travel advice restrictions and measures to avoid the spread of the novel virus. On January 21, the first case was reported in the US. The first cases in Europe were found in France by January 24. In India, Kerala on January 27 reported a case involving a 20-year-old woman who had returned from Wuhan. By January 30, there were 98 cases in 18 countries outside China and the WHO issued a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), the global health body’s highest level of alarm.
On February 11, the term COVID-19 was chosen to describe the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. By March 7, the number of cases globally had crossed 1 lakh. On March 11, concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and inaction, WHO made the assessment that COVID-19 could be characterised as a pandemic. The Director-General of WHO restated the agency’s call — made from the beginning — for countries to take a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach, built around a comprehensive strategy to prevent infections, save lives and minimise impact. He proposed the mantra of “detect, test, treat, isolate, trace, and mobilise people in the response.”
By April 10, 2020, the number of cases worldwide had crossed 10 lakh. The pandemic continued to grow and, in just eight months, by the end of December 2020, there were over 830 lakh cases and 18 lakh deaths worldwide, with India accounting for 102.86 lakh cases and 1.5 lakh deaths.
The many faces of COVID-19
Like many mythological creatures, COVID-19 turns out to have multiple personalities depending on the person it affects. This has led to a lot of confusion. Thanks to the diligence and quickness of medical and research professionals across the world, we now realise the intricate interplay between the body defence mechanisms and the virus that leads to a surprisingly large number of outcomes.
There are people who exhibit symptoms — a bewildering array of them — and those who do not show any symptoms or are asymptomatic. Some have a mild cold; others suffer from severe lung infection and pneumonia. Those who suffer no effects are side-by-side with those that die from the disease. There are those who have what are called long COVID — where they suffer debilitating after-effects for weeks and months. There are instances of COVID-19 affecting the heart, kidneys and even the brain, leading to speculations of likely increase in neurological diseases after many years. The COVID-19 seems to have affection for males, the elderly and certain population profiles — at least till now.
One in a nonillion..
An estimated 10 nonillion viruses (10 followed by 31 zeroes) exist in the world. As has happened many, many times, a virus jumped from an animal host to a human somewhere and then happily started spreading between humans. But this time, the virus induced pneumonia in some that caused medical doctors in Wuhan, where the first cases came up, to flag it as a matter of concern.
Chinese scientists isolated the virus and its genome sequenced in record time. This showed it belonged to a family of coronaviruses — which have been infecting humans for quite some time with no major effects than a simple cold. But the virus which had around 30,000 nucleic acid bases or ‘letters’ in its genome that coded for around 29 proteins was found to be closely related to the one that caused an earlier epidemic — Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) — that was quickly contained in South East Asia. So the scientists in the Coronavirus Study Group of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses decided to call it SARS-Cov2.
In less than three months, robust science and technology deciphered the three dimensional enveloped structure of the virus with this characteristic spikes and the way it binds to ACE2 receptors in human cells to make its entry into the cell where it replicates and makes more copies of itself before destroying the cell and moving onto other cells. They also figured out the immune response mounted by the body and how an over response led to many of the severity of disease conditions that were seen.
All these helped come up with ways to test for presence of the virus, detect the antibodies raised by the response to the virus, find drugs that could be repurposed for medication and finally also rapidly come up with many vaccine candidates. In a never before seen example of international collaboration and endeavour, in a span of 11 months since the identification of this new pathogen, now there is a basket of safe and efficacious vaccines that have either gone through emergency regulatory approvals or is in the final stages of clinical trials as humanity enters hopefully a less viral 2021.