Published: 14th June 2021
Vaccines were being developed even 20 or 10 years ago when SARS, MERS were common: Dr Satyajit Rath at TNIE's COVID Think Tank
Dr Rath was speaking on the topic The next epidemic: What will we do? at The New Indian Express' online event COVID Think Tank on Monday
Everybody is worried about how vaccines got developed in a year, and said if this was quick, have they taken shortcuts? These vaccines have been made for the past 20 years, this virus is a member of the Coronavirus family, said Dr Satyajit Rath, a well-known immunologist and researcher. "One of COVID's relatives we met 20 years ago was called SARS, another we met 10 years ago, which caused the disease called MERS, what has been similar is that all three are respiratory. But there were two things not similar — if five people were infected with the SARS or the MERS viruses, one or two died. If 200 people get infected with COVID-19 maybe one or two die. Today's virus is much less lethal than the other two," added Dr Rath while speaking on the topic The next epidemic: What will we do? at The New Indian Express' online event COVID Think Tank on Monday, June 14, 2021.
Speaking about the second difference he said, "Research groups across the world began to make a vaccine when the other two viruses came into being. Scientifically speaking, making vaccines against these viruses are not as difficult compared to making one for TB or HIV. They began finding all the preliminary data, but in that time, we discovered the other difference, which is that those two didn't spread as much. Simply maintaining distance wherever there were outbreaks nipped them in the bud and transmission stopped. Ordinary steps like local distancing could stop transmission. There were no huge outbreaks, no pandemic and as a result we decided that therefore we didn't need those vaccines. It was being developed by the private sectors and as nobody was going to buy their vaccines they stopped developing it. These prototype vaccines were back on the shelf. All those were taken off the shelves and altered as the three viruses were related and had a little difference. These vaccines are simpler to visualise and design than those for TB and HIV. It all depends on what you want to prevent and when."
Dr Rath said that the virus is not something we expect to understand overnight. "To be excessively certain about anything related to this disease can be horribly wrong, we need to be extremely careful and cautious," he added.
Explaining how we have misunderstood certain symptoms and how we should be more careful in terms of dealing with the virus now, he stated, "A lot of the symptoms of the disease are not actually the virus but the immune response of the body. The curious thing that we still don't understand about this virus is that in the majority of cases, this is all that happens — 80-90 per cent of the time. In a small minority of cases, the inflammation is so much that the lungs fill with fluid and that's inflammatory fluid, that's not the virus making fluid. It's in such cases that we still don't quite understand what separates those with mild or moderate illness from those with severe life-threatening illness, what is different between people who have mild and who have severe. We know co-morbidities, age increase the chances but we don't know exactly how they increase the chances. It is important for us in the pandemic time to keep in mind that we have been studying this virus only for a year and a half, we don't know a great deal about it."
Speaking on the overuse of steroids and antibiotics to treat COVID patients, he criticised the one-size-fits-all approach by our government or even medical system. "The overuse of antibiotics is certainly a problem, clinicians have been pointing it out. Should we be using antibiotics? COVID-19 is caused by a virus and in short, they have nothing against viruses. When people experience local inflammations, those areas other bacteria can now come in and grow there, to control that we can use antibiotics, but with care when patients need it. Similarly, overuse of steroids is leading to newer fungal infections," he added.
Finally, he added that, "We needed to acknowledge that COVID-19 is not a short-term crisis, it is not an earthquake where it has happened and we need to deal with the aftermath. This is going to go up and come down, because of transmission, we need to provide healthcare facilities with adequate amounts of resources everywhere. We knew last year this was a respiratory virus, we knew what to do. But, how many people are actually wearing masks appropriately while speaking? Better masking, sustainable N95 mask development technologies need to be put out as a matter of public healthcare. We needed to fast-track vaccine processes and not vaccines. We are doing it now, when it's a little too late but not completely bad."