In the course of nearly four decades of teaching and giving public lectures on science, philosophy, God and physics and humanity, I have been confronted with many meaty and mundane questions. But the most curious of all is when at the beginning of the lockdown in South Africa a graduate student asked if I think Covid-19 will with time vanish like Spanish flu?
This question was totally outside my field and the subject matter under discussion at that moment. The student’s ingenious tone made it clear that she was genuinely searching for an answer to a disease which was causing havoc to her community. During my professoriate career of many decades I hold the norm that there is no such thing as stupid or idle question. And to the surprise of the student, the zoom audience and most of all myself, I mustered reasonable answers and followed up with other caveats.
What I recall saying, embellished, of course, by the distortions of memory and l’esprit de l’escalier went something like this: As a layman I am not sure if the word ‘vanish’ is the correct characterization. My hunch is the human body will sooner or later grow immune to the COVID-19 and the virus will recede. With steadily exposure to the human body, natural mechanism will be developed to subdue the virus.
We see this phenomenon happening in China, Italy, Spain, New Zealand and the Nordic countries. So there is no need for undue consternation as we go through this period of lockdowns and we develop mechanisms and effective protocols to minimize the spread of the virus. Why am I optimistic Covid-19 will soon become like any other virus?
Factually the Spanish flu pandemic was more lethal than the Covid-19. The lethality of Spanish flu was such that it was able to kill healthy and youthful individuals as opposed to Covid-19 . Crucially the Spanish flu was wickedly fatal in that individuals with no symptoms died within hours of affliction.
The Covid19, however, as per current data, afflicts mostly people with pre existing conditions. Healthy individuals and people with access to quality health care are more likely to recover from Covid-19.
Will there be a cure for Covid-19?
Viruses are stubbornly elusive and therefore unbeatable by way of specific cure. Medical scientists are still battling to develop effective cure to common flu or cold. So I think it is going to be a long haul before the best of scientists come with specific cure for Coronavirus.
As alluded to earlier across the globe there is a race to develop effective vaccines for the disease. This will only be possible if the effort is global and not nationalistic. As of July 2020 thousands of volunteers around the world are being injected with experimental Covid-19 vaccines as researchers race to find effective prevention.
My hunch is a successful vaccine could be the escape hatch from a disease that in the space of less than a year has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars to combat. As it were, the real test clearly depend on the people who will have access to an effective vaccine or develop natural antibodies.
The world’s population stands at nearly 8 billion and the challenge according to experts, is how do we get majority of humanity to be inoculated. Such massive inoculation hopefully will help to attain the critical mass or “herd immunity” to significantly slow or stop transmission.
Developing a successful vaccine is not guaranteed, though research scientists are optimistic given results of early trials. Another challenge is even if vaccines are developed it is going to take months or years to deliver billions of doses to all corners of the world.
Globally I foresee challenges which include receiving approvals in individual countries, identifying and preparing manufacturing sites, delivery logistics and of course, vaccination campaigns.
Public health experts are of the opinion that the more people receive the vaccine could be the difference between bringing the pandemic under manageable control and a virus which pops up around the world to spark repeated outbreaks as it is happening now. For example, countries such as Australia, Belgium, Hong Kong, South Korea and United Kingdom which according to experts have flattened the curve and now experiencing spikes in infections.
Clearly there have been many health policy experts who have expressed the fear of nations developing the vaccine nationalism syndrome. As alluded to earlier there would be huge demand of doses of effective vaccines once they are developed and efficacy established. As expected there won’t be many doses from the get go. Hence the need for global solidarity in developing policy that target groups and countries everywhere that are in critical need of the vaccines. Such policy in essence means making vaccine available first to vulnerable populations like the elderly, those with other illnesses, and frontline health workers.
It is simply a supply and demand dichotomy as rich countries jockey to secure supply for their own citizens. It is not far fetched to see a scenario where the early doses are earmarked for Americans, Europeans, India Chinese. Gulf countries. South America, Africa and part of Asia will be left to dry. The Trumps of the world won’t mind commandeering early vaccines for their citizens.
Thankfully the World Health Organization, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, and Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovators have proposed a model to offer broader vaccine access. This Coalition aims to distribute over two billion vaccine doses among one hundred and sixty five participating countries of which South Africa is a member. The Oxford vaccine which is being tested in South Africa is part of this global initiative.
This strategy is a break with past mechanisms that attempt to reduce the time lag between rich nations and developing countries for first vaccine doses.
Apart from the development of effective vaccines the next logical
question is will natural immune system overcome the Coronavirus?
Here, I revert back to the case of Spanish flu. The Spanish flu literally lost its bite once the human body grew immune to the virus. If the history of the management of past viruses is to be a guide, with time the human body will master all the trickeries of the Covid-19 just as it did with Spanish flu. In essence, if the human immune architecture has the ability to fight off a virus as lethal as Spanish flu, you bet , it will surely develop the mechanisms to overcome the Covid-19. In other words Herd Immunity is Near!!
So in answering the innocuous question from my student let me also assure the people of Africa and the world to take heart for Coronavirus is a fleeting event. Soon Coronavirus might vanish or become as innocuous as the common cold and we will all get back to normality. The human ingenuity, reason and science are only savior as we battle another novel virus.
Far from Covid-19 being an insipid disease it won’t be the last virus of many viruses to confront humanity. It won’t wipe out the homo sapient from planet Earth. Humanity will triumph!!