March 15, 2020The IntersectionCovid-19history

Why the current pandemic may perhaps be the world’s last one

Pathogens will certainly evolve to frustrate humankind’s best-laid plans. It is in the order of nature that they will succeed, but human ingenuity will limit that success to small outbreaks that will be quickly contained.

Mint This is from The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.

It may sound incongruous to say this in the middle of a particularly virulent pandemic, but the current one might be the last of its kind. Once we are done with the Covid-19-causing SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus—and we will be— the world is likely to enter an era wherein pandemics and large-scale epidemics will be a thing of the past.

Violating my own injunctions against analysts making predictions, I boldly made one a couple of weeks after news of the outbreak in China: That within the next 15 years, the world will develop on-demand vaccines and treatments for a number of categories of viruses. The capability for rapid sequencing of viral genomes already exists. It will become more widespread, helping discovery and diagnostic testing. Advances in computing power and bioinformatics will make it possible to put together anti-virus molecules that can be used to make vaccines, or to treat infections…of course, viruses will mutate, too, and the cat-and-mouse game will continue, but humanity will get an edge.”

Brave words these, but there are three broad reasons to be optimistic. Advances in computer technology and synthetic biology have revolutionized both detection and diagnosis of pathogens, as well as the processes of design and development of vaccines, subjecting them to Moore’s Law-type cycles of getting better and better with less and less. Recent epidemics, starting with SARS, and including H1N1, Ebola, Zika and now Covid-19, will drive more talent and brainpower to the biological and epidemiological sciences. And, in response to the impact of the current coronavirus pandemic, national governments, international organizations and philanthropic foundations will prioritize investments in public health. The combined effect of these trends will be a world where infectious diseases, in general, and viral pandemics, in particular, will be limited in geography, scale and impact.

Viruses can be deadly, but are pretty simple things. They are composed of a few proteins and a small amount of genetic material, and can be completely characterized fairly easily. Back in 2003, it took a few months for scientists to fully sequence the 29,727 nucleotides of the SARS virus genome. In comparison, it took around a month for Chinese scientists to do the same for the SARS-Cov-2 coronavirus, the genome of which is comparable in size to the SARS virus. That’s because the technology used for sequencing improves with advances in computing power, and today’s machines are orders of magnitude more powerful than the ones we used two decades ago. This is also why testing a patient for coronavirus today takes a few hours and costs around ₹5,000.

It’s even better news when it comes to developing vaccines and treatments, where a combination of bioinformatics and synthetic biology have transformed the landscape. A mere 42 days after the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus was published, Moderna Therapeutics, a Massachusetts-based biotech company, shipped vaccines to the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) for clinical trials that are scheduled to start in April. In fact, it took just over a week for the company to design the vaccine. This is breathtaking compared to the 10-15 years it used to take to develop vaccines traditionally. We should expect the process of bringing a vaccine to market to become faster and more efficient as we get better at animal and human modelling, making clinical trials both faster and safer.

Apart from cheap and powerful computing power, advances in software, including machine learning and artificial intelligence in bioinformatics, are transforming the field of vaccine design and drug discovery. Of course, these are early days and we don’t yet have vaccines for many simpler viruses, but technological advancements have created happy hunting grounds for virologists and vaccinologists.

So there are careers to be made, prizes to be won and, of course, money to be gained in this field, all of which will attract a lot more talent into virology, epidemiology, bioinformatics and public health. Notice how in the coming months research laboratories everywhere in the world begin to focus on infectious diseases in general and viral epidemics in particular. Public, private and venture funding will flow into this area as governments, multilateral organizations and big philanthropic foundations allocate more resources to epidemic prevention.

Finally, the world will learn from the successes and failures of national responses to the current pandemic. Expect greater international coordination, norms and processes in public health on a scale that we saw for global counter-terrorism after 9/11. The seriousness with which governments consider the terror threat is vastly different now than it was before that date. It will be similar for countering epidemics in the post-Covid-19 world.

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Viruses, bacteria and other pathogens will certainly evolve to frustrate humankind’s best-laid plans. It is in the order of nature that they will succeed, but human ingenuity will limit that success to small outbreaks that will be quickly contained.

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