Adamas University Biotechnology, Career, Covid-19

#BiotechnologyNext : The COVID-19 pandemic: present status and future opportunities for students

In the current pandemic COVID-19, the importance of civic responsibilities is immense to curb the spread of the infection. Unfortunately, it appears that at least in India the lack of civic responsibility is one of the reasons for the recent spike in the number of infections. As of 5th August 2020, the total number of coronavirus cases in India has crossed 1.9 million with over 39,000 deaths (2.1% mortality rate), whereas worldwide total infected cases are over 18.8 million with more than 700,000 deaths (3.8% mortality rate). Initially, India has managed to curtail the spread of the virus mainly due to its timely strict lockdown and social distancing regulations, but the recent relaxation on the lockdown appears to increase the total number of infections. 

India is known for its rich diversity where various religions coexist in harmony, but sometimes diversity, religious beliefs create roadblocks especially what we have seen during the lockdown period in India. It was not an easy task to enforce social distancing norms where social mixing is what loved by most of the 135 billion people in India. Despite all the hurdles India appears to curtail the spread of the virus significantly compared to several developed nations in the world. India fared much better, in terms of mortality rate, compared to the nations with highest numbers of COVID-19 deaths like USA (3.3% mortality rate), Brazil (3.4% mortality rate), UK (15.1% mortality rate), Mexico (10.9% mortality rate), Italy (14.1% mortality rate), France (15.6% mortality rate), and Spain (8.1% mortality rate). Although these numbers are dependent on how many testing is done in each country, at this point most of the countries have increased their capacities significantly; for example, India is currently testing more than 0.4 million per day and increasing its capacity to test 1 million samples a day. 

Despite apparent better management and low mortality rates compared to most of the other nations, the medical treatment offered by the healthcare professionals in India needs serious rethinking. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) under the supervision of the central government has recommended hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) for prophylaxis to healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients and asymptomatic persons who have been in contact with a positive patient. In some cases, HCQ was found to be administered along with azithromycin to ailing COVID-19 patients. The hype around the HCQ, coined as ‘wonder-drug’, fizzles out recently when reports have started to show that HCQ does not affect the COVID-19 patients. No other country in the world has recommended HCQ as a prophylactic. The use of HCQ, therefore, has to be regulated as it may cause serious damages to the COVID-19 patients if taken unsupervised by the doctors. HCQ is cheap and readily available in the Indian market and that prompts the general population to embrace it as the cure for COVID-19. Although there are some positive effects of HCQ found in some COVID-19 patients, the use of the drug without the recommendation of doctors should be strictly controlled.

Unfortunately, in India, not too many alternatives are available to HCQ for treating COVID-19 patients. The drug remdesivir which has shown some benefits to COVID-19 patients is available in India but too expensive for most of the patients. Another alternative Indian government looking at is convalescent plasma therapy where recovered patients plasma with antibodies against coronavirus is used to treat new patients, but again for a pandemic like COVID-19 plasma therapy has its limitations. Another immunosuppressive drug tocilizumab is being used in some critical patients having signs of ‘cytokine storm’ which can destroy a patient’s lung and cause multi-organ failure. Unfortunately, the drug is costly and requires monitoring of the patient’s IL-6 levels which again is a costly affair in India. Until the discovery of potent drugs or vaccines to treat COVID-19 supportive treatment is the only option, but the use of HCQ requires extreme caution especially in India. Therefore, strict social or physical distancing norms and other safety measures are only remedies available for the general population to stop the spread of the virus, but the recent relaxation of the lockdown in India and the spike in the number of infections proves that we need to be very careful about the physical distancing and should maintain civic responsibilities strictly if there is any hope to curb the spread of COVID-19 in absence of any potent drug or vaccine for the foreseeable future.

At present 37 coronavirus candidate vaccines are under various phases of clinical trials (source: https://www.bioworld.com/COVID19products), and three of them are at the final phase III trials. Several Indian companies/organizations are also developing coronavirus vaccines, e.g., Serum Institute of India, Bharat Biotech, Zydus Cadila, etc. Therefore, the opportunities in the field of vaccine development and allied fields have increased multifold in recent times. Students from various biology fields, e.g., Biotechnology, Microbiology, and Biochemistry, are in demand. Even in the post-COVID-19 era, the demand for the students from Biotechnology, Microbiology, and Biochemistry streams are going to increase as there will be a stronger focus on health henceforward. SARS-CoV-2 is not the last virus discovered that can infect humans as many more are predicted to be discovered in the future. Therefore, government and non-government funding are expected to increase in understanding these pathogens and how to develop drugs or vaccines against them in the future. Students who know about Molecular Biology, Genetics, Bioinformatics, Genetic Engineering, Immunology, Virology, etc. are going to be in demand at present and the future.

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