Invest in disease research

  • Letters
  • Monday, 17 Feb 2020

THE number of people infected with the Covid-19 will undoubtedly reach 70,000, having passed 69,000 yesterday.

We have seen the developments surrounding the outbreak and in general it is not entirely erroneous to say that we were not well prepared. Not that we are undermining the tireless and commendable efforts that have been undertaken, but just like with any crisis, we try to mitigate the effects and contain the impact post-event. Is a coronavirus epidemic something that has never been anticipated, predicted or warned about before?

For the longest time, scientists around the globe have been warning humanity about the emergence of new infectious diseases, particularly those involving viruses.

Our lackadaisical attitude towards the environment is regarded as the single most important contributory factor to the emergence of new strains of pathogens. Genetic mutations are occurring at an unprecedentedly rapid rate thanks to climate change caused by us polluting Mother Earth.

And almost immediately after the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS-CoV (Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus) epidemics, again scientists voiced concerns about future outbreaks caused by possible new strains of coronavirus. The question is, did governments take heed of the warnings? What did they do?

We have seen tremendous progress in the advancement of information technology and telecommunications but the same cannot be said about the treatment of transmissible diseases. This is largely due to these notable, fundamental factors: 1) The amount of R&D in this area is far less compared with the effort put into telecom technology; and 2) R&D is largely driven by projected financial gain.

While telcos invest in developing new technology for future returns, drug companies only “invest” in searching for a cure for a known pathogen so they can see tangible returns once the drug enters the market. In simpler terms, it is not feasible to develop a cure for something that does not exist yet.

The economic impact of the last two outbreaks, SARS and MERS, was more than US$100bil (RM414bil) globally. This excludes any stimulus packages injected into the economies of affected countries. For the Covid-19 epidemic, the figures will be no less if not greater. If a fraction of this amount had been used a few years ago on researching drugs that could work against coronaviruses, we probably would be seeing more effective treatment today.

It is high time for all governments to work together and not in silos. A “pre-emptive strike” in the form of a global centre of communicable diseases, manned by the world’s finest and equipped with the latest technology can be set up to monitor any unusual incidences; perform experiments to project future traits/mutations of pathogens; develop broad spectrum antiviral agents and other new forms of treatments including preventative measures/ prophylaxis; improve the management system of future outbreaks, especially containment; and maintain a seamless flow of accurate information to all stakeholders, including the general public.

Only then will the people of this planet have a fighting chance against future “attacks” from an invisible menace.


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