The coronavirus pandemic – Miftah Ismail

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Modern calculations confirm that a solar eclipse occurred on January 27, 632 AD. Quoting from Sahih Bukhari “the sun eclipsed in the life-time of Allah’s Apostle on the day when (his son) Ibrahim died. So the people said that the sun had eclipsed because of the death of Ibrahim. Allah’s Apostle said, “The sun and the moon do not eclipse because of the death or life (ie birth) of someone. When you see the eclipse pray and invoke Allah.”

About 900 years later Nicholas Copernicus, a Prussian astronomer first postulated that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than the other way around as was then commonly believed. The Copernican view was later empirically supported by Galileo Galilei, who had to suffer persecution due to his observations. Through the work of scientists over the centuries we now know that the moon orbits around the earth and the earth orbits around the sun and during their orbits these heavenly bodies, on the rare occasion, align so that we see eclipses on earth. Indeed, studying these orbits scientists can predict future eclipses a thousand years from now to the very second.

The above Hadith taught us about 1500 years ago that eclipses don’t happen because someone is sad or angry. The sun and the moon go about their business as mandated by Allah in the laws of nature.

Laws of nature also determine earthquakes, which take place when the tectonic plates that make up the earth’s crust slide against each other and release some pressure. Whereas we can’t predict when or where an earthquake may happen exactly – like we can predict an eclipse – we know why earthquakes happen and scientists have models about earthquake occurrence. Whereas a human activity like fracking may affect the probability of an earthquake happening in a particular place, ethical or moral lapses or religious sins are not the cause of earthquakes.

That brings me to the virus that is gripping the world today. A virus is not inorganic but nor is it a living thing, as it lacks the ability to reproduce itself. A virus can only ‘reproduce’ by attaching itself to a living cell and then directing the cell to replicate the virus.

A virus is typically composed of nucleic acid (RNA or DNA) and some proteins enclosed in a protective shell composed of fatty substances. The coronavirus is a type of virus. There are many other types of viruses, including the Rhinovirus that causes the common cold, the Influenza virus that causes the flu, Human Immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS, or the very first virus ever discovered, the Tobacco Mosaic virus that infects tobacco plants.

When a virus attaches itself to a living cell, it directs the cell to make copies of its RNA (or DNA as the case may be) thereby new viruses are produced. However sometimes when cells are making copies of the viral RNA, they make mistakes and produce a slightly altered RNA. These are called mutations. Now in some cases these mutated RNAs acquire greater ability to infect cells that belong to other species, including humans.

The virus that has caused the current pandemic is a newly evolved virus from the coronavirus family (hence it is referred to as the novel coronavirus) that is thought to have transferred from bats to humans having acquired an ability to infect human cells.

Think about the coronavirus infecting cells of animals and getting replicated. Now even if animal cells make copies of the viral RNA with a 99.999 percent accuracy, as they make trillions of copies they will make thousands of copies of RNA with some mutations. And some of those mutant RNAs may possibly be able to survive and infect human cells. So probability tells us that it is a matter of time before some viruses transfer from animals to humans. This is just like major earthquakes happening every so often. We aren’t able to predict them with certainty but we know they do happen often.

In the last few years, we have seen the HIV virus make the leap from chimpanzees to humans. And we have seen two types of coronaviruses, that cause SARS and MERS, also transfer from animals to humans and evolve the ability to infect human cells. So the ability of some novel virus to make the jump was not entirely unexpected and it was only a matter of time. When viruses infecting cells of various animals are constantly getting replicated in their trillions, some of them will mutate and will acquire the ability to infect humans and will indeed make the transition from animals to humans.

Since viruses have been infecting animal cells since the beginning of life, animals, including humans, have acquired the ability to fight back. Our body has an immune system that fights back the invasion of foreign viruses by destroying them. Most such fights the body wins. But depending on the virulence of the virus and the health of our immune system, some fights we lose.

Happily, viruses that are very virulent don’t survive very often. That’s because they kill their hosts very fast and with the death of the hosts, viruses also die and aren’t able to infect others and multiply. That’s one reason Ebola or other very virulent viruses have had limited impact. But viruses that aren’t as virulent or that take a bit of time before they kill the host, keep on spreading and therefore thrive. The influenza virus is an example of a biologically successful virus – in that it keeps spreading – with low virulence. This novel coronavirus also has low virulence but is highly infectious. This makes it so dangerous.

A way to fight off the viruses is through vaccination. Vaccines don’t strengthen our immune system but prime them to be ready to fight the virus. Typically, vaccines inject into the body a small fraction of viral RNA that has been rendered ineffective. This injected RNA fraction teaches our immune system how to identify and destroy the actual virus.

Given the huge number of deaths, especially in Europe and North America, there is right now an unprecedented effort worldwide – except, sad to say, in the Islamic world where science education is not a priority – looking for a vaccine that would give humans immunity from this coronavirus. There is hope that within two years a vaccine will be ready for use.

Fortunately, so far there have been relatively few deaths in South Asia. This has given rise to speculation, so far untested, that some vaccines that people in South Asia normally take, such as polio or tuberculosis vaccines, may help boost immunity against this coronavirus. The coming few weeks will tell us if it is true.

The coronavirus pandemic is due to the laws of nature and not because of any moral or religious shortcomings on our part. To fight this disease we need vaccines. Of course to be able to develop these vaccines, we need scientific knowledge. I hope one lesson we learn from this pandemic is the importance of investing in science education in Pakistan.

The writer has served asfederal minister for finance, revenue and economic affairs.

Twitter: @MiftahIsmail