Picture: Ian Landsberg/African News Agency (ANA).
Picture: Ian Landsberg/African News Agency (ANA).

Ignore the ‘noise’ around the origins of Covid-19 and confront the pandemic head-on

By Edwin Naidu Time of article published Sep 8, 2021

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OPINION: Leading scientists warn Covid-19 must be dealt with head-on because ‘there’s more coming’ writes Edwin Naidu.

Experts on the Covid19 virus have called on humanity to confront the pandemic head-on and not be distracted by side issues.

One of the South Africa’s leading voices on the pandemic, Professor Salim Abdool Karim, says understanding the genesis of the virus matters. But it’s more important to urgently find solutions to tackle the virus head-on “because there’s more coming”.

In the past week, there has been several positive steps. But Abdool Karim’s stark warning comes amid fierce ongoing debate in mainly Western capitals over the origins of Covid-19, a discussion which takes centre stage ahead of solutions, inevitably dividing opinion.

Even after stepping down as the chairperson of the ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19 in March, the genial KwaZulu Natal epidemiologist and infectious diseases specialist speaks with authority on the subject. And he remains in demand by local and international media for his insightful views on the pandemic.

The reality, he says, is close to five million people around the world have died because of Covid-19, underscoring the need for solutions to tackle the scourge, not just attempting to find a cure. Globally, the virus has affected some 218 million people. In South Africa 83 343 people have died out of  2.79 million cases since March last year when the pandemic broke in the country. The statistics for Africa show more than 7 million cases with 180 000 deaths.

Abdool Karim is a sober voice amid the noise. Last week the CIA presented an inconclusive report on the origins of the pandemic in Wuhan, China, to US President Joe Biden. The US has remained a hotbed of hostility and misinformation, a case in point highlighted by the fact that while scientists have been searching for solutions, the Trump administration, before it’s election defeat, labelled the pandemic a potential biological weapon.

Biden’s administration seems to want to walk down the same road as Trump. But the report by the CIA commissioned by Biden found inconclusive evidence to support such a theory. If it seems like déjà vu, one may recall that in 1991, US president George Bush Junior, joined by British prime minister Blair, insisted on going to war against Iraq because of the existence of weapons of mass destruction. They found none.

Similar innuendo during the pandemic has done little to quell the decline in cases or deaths around the world. Since 2019, the death toll throughout the world has not abated. In a number of countries it runs in the tens of thousands. The US has reported 40 million cases and 642 000 deaths. India 32 million and 439 000 deaths. Brazil 21 million cases and 581 000 deaths. These awful statistics make for grim reading.

But Abdool Karim is optimistic. He refers to a journal article by scientist Shane Crotty on hybrid immunity with Covid-19 vaccines. According to the article, hybrid vigour takes place when different plant lines are bred so the hybrid becomes a stronger plant. Something similar happens when natural immunity is combined with vaccine-generated immunity, resulting in 25 to 100 times higher antibody responses, driven by memory B cells and CD4+ T cells and broader cross-protection from variants.

Abdool Karim believes that the focus ought to be on how we can move forward.

“If you keep worrying about all the problems that went on behind, you won’t make progress. You have to look forward, you have to be forward or solution orientated, you have to find the best way forward and try to make the best of a bad situation,” he says.

Modest despite the high regard in which he is held, Abdool Karim makes a disclaimer during our chat: “I want to clarify that everything I tell you, is just my views. Okay, there’s no right and wrong in this business. So, there’s no crystal ball to suggest that I know the future, and you don’t.”

Offering what he terms as his “educated opinion”, Abdool Karim says much good work is being done by scientists leaving one feeling confident that they’re on top of their game when it comes to managing the pandemic.

He talks about seeing first-hand the devastation caused by the pandemic particularly in Italy before arriving in South Africa but then on November 9, everything changed when Pfizer, working with BioNTech, released their first results which showed that its vaccine candidate was found to be more than 90% effective in preventing Covid-19 in participants without evidence of prior SARS-CoV-2 infection.

“When I was asked how long it’s going to take to get a vaccine, I said it takes years. After all, I’ve devoted 32 years to working on an HIV vaccine, we don’t have one yet,” he says with a smile.

But Abdool Karim says he was shocked when they were able to make a vaccine and then understood why. The reason a vaccine arrived so swiftly is that the work on it began more about 18 years ago.

“When the original SARS outbreak occurred a team started working on it. One in particular, a friend of ours called Barney Graham did the sequencing and built a vaccine for the original SARS but there was no use for the vaccine because it never came back. So he made the vaccine, but he had no use for it .

“When the SARS-2 came along, he already had the vaccine from the original. He modified it for Covid-19 and his sequence is in the vaccines by Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson. So a vaccine came quickly with good reason.”

However, Abdool Karim warns that the next set of variants are now evolving even in midst of more vaccinated people. “If I was a betting man, I would bet there are more variants. This virus is not done with us. We might be done with the virus, but it’s not done with us.”

However, Dr Thierno Balde, the deputy incident manager for the World Health Organisation Africa based in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, says while Africa may not reach its target of vaccination for 10% of the most vulnerable on the continent, the consequences may be been less important than elsewhere.

Africa has a smaller fraction of deaths than in Europe, America and Asia. The health systems in Africa while wanting, has not come under the same pressure as in other regions.

According to Balde, public health issue always is accompanied by political dimensions. But from an African perspective, governments have performed admirably in managing the pandemic, encouraging sanitation and wearing of masks, and now focusing on vaccination. Given the low rate of vaccination in Africa, Balde says additional waves cannot be ruled out.

Hence, the need for grabbing the window of opportunity to ensure people are not distracted by any noise (related to the origins of the virus) but be better prepared for what may come.

* Naidu is a communications professional and journalist writing on current affairs.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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