Pakistan scientists fight against coronavirus

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PROF. ATTA-UR-RAHMAN, FRS, N.I., H.I., S.I., T.I.,UNESCO SCIENCE
LAUREATE T HE Ministry of Science and Technology has formed a Na tional Task Force on Science and Technology under my Chairmanship. I also happen to be the Chairman of the Prime Minister ’s Task Force on Science and Technology. The Task Force has undertaken a number of important initiatives to fight against the Coronavirus that is affecting populations all over the world. One important initiative was to try and understand the structure of the virus and determine if it was identical to the virus found in Wuhan, China, or had it undergone any changes (mutations). This will allow us to understand any weak points in its structure, and design drugs to attack it. The work to determine its structure was undertaken by ur leading leading scientists at Pakistan’s premier research center, the Jamil-ur-Rahman Center for Genome Research which is a part of the Dr. Panjwani Center for Molecular Medicine and Drug Research, International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences (ICCBS) , at the University of Karachi. The Center is world famous, and has received many international awards including being designated as the UNESCO Center of Excellence in the region. As a result of this effort the Pakistani scientists have determined the structure of the strain of Coronavirus found in Pakistan. This work, involving the determination of the sequence of nucleotides in a long molecular necklace with about 30,000 “beads” (molecules) was carried out using the latest DNA sequencers installed in this Center. Analysis of the sequence revealed 9 changes (mutations) in the different regions of genome as compared to the sequence reported from the corresponding virus in Wuhan (China). Mutations are the changes which appear in the DNA of all organisms and viruses. Does this mean that this virus in Pakistan is less virulent or less dangerous? No it does not. It is too early to assess how the changes found in its structure will impact its behavior. This viral genome is slowly mutating and it is premature to say what will be the impact on virulence due to these mutations. The virus COVID-19 has become a grave health challenge globally with more than one million confirmed cases and about 60,000 recorded deaths to date. Cases are exponentially on the rise and new territories and regions are constantly reporting new cases UN has dubbed the COVID-19 as the most serious challenge to humanity since World War II. Corona virus spreads through aerosols by coughing and sneezing.. A massive global effort is underway to develop an effective vaccine along with direct acting anti-viral drugs. Clinicians and researchers around the globes are desperately trying to repurpose existing drugs with little success. Lockdowns and social distancing are being used as important measures to stop the pandemic. It has become very obvious that reliable, sensitive and rapid diagnosis of the disease is vital for its management. Ideally every suspected case should be rapidly tested and isolated if found positive. It has been speculated by some that the hot weather will slow down the pandemic. This too is premature to conclude as this is the first summer that this virus will experience. Previosu members of the Coronavirus family (SARS, MERS) were not greatly affected by hot weather. Since it is a brand new virus and we don’t know how it will behave in the summer. Hundreds of SARS-CoV-2 genomes are now being reported from different parts of world. University of Cambridge, UK is spearheading effort to massively map coronavirus genomes from UK population. £20 million have been allocated for the said project. Data of the patient shows that imported cases have travel history from different counties. Given the specific environmental conditions in our part of the world, the International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences is initiating the “Pak SARS-COV-II 50 Genomes Project” to analyze whole gnomes of te coronavirus from different transmission routes. This data will be helpful in decision making at the national level for the use of future therapeutic options and vaccinations. This study will be carried out in collaboration with the Indus Hospital, Karachi and DOW University of Health Sciences Karachi. As new drug development or new vaccine development can take years and billions of dollars, these are not viable options. So our Coronavirus Task Force is now carrying out clinical trials on some of the existing drugs to see if we can discover molecular bullets to kill this virus from the existing armory of drugs. The Task Force has also undertaken the local design and manufacture of ventilators. More than 2000 confirmed cases and 34 deaths have been reported in Pakistan. There is a surge in local transmission in recent days, with the numbers doubling every 3 to 4 days. The real number of affected patients today are probably around 10,000 today, and at this rate of expansion we will have more than 100,000 patients by the end of April. If we cannot flatten the curve relating to the rate of increase through social distancing, the number could be much larger. There is a huge storm coming and the whole nation must unite and be ready to face this looming threat with courage and fortitude. We should set aside political differences and join hands as a strong united nation with trust in Allah. We must help the poor and the needy ones around us in every way possible to alleviate the distress and misery that the joblessness will cause. We may probably have to follow the path being considered by Brazil, to open up the economic activity and be ready to bear the cost in terms of illness and deaths, to avoid deaths due to hunger or due to the deterioration in the law and order situation. Our valiant soldiers may be fighting the most important battle for our survival, in collaboration with our civilians. If there was ever a time for us to forcefully recover the funds stashed abroad by past criminal rulers and disperse them among the poor, the time is now. Terrorism and mega corruption go together. A special Ordinance should be passed to use military courts to carry out trials of persons involved in mega corruption. Those already convicted should be given Class C in jails and forced to cough up looted national funds so that they could be used to meet the national crisis. —The writer is the Chairman of the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Science & Technology, former Federal Minister of Science & Technology & former Chairman of Higher Education Commission.

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