Every Indian state must have a lab to test coronavirus: Belgian scientist

Topics Coronavirus | WHO | China

Medical personnel scan a new coronavirus patient at a hospital in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province. Photo: PTI
Belgian microbiologist Peter Piot, who was credited with helping in the discovery of the dreaded Ebola virus in 1976, called for an increased preparedness on the part of India and other countries against the new coronavirus (COVID-19). He asserted that said many of these nations, unlike China, wouldn't know how to deal with the virus in case it spread to their domains.

About 60 million people were quarantined and over 1,700 died in China due to the new Corona virus infection, which has so far affected 25 countries in what the World Health Organization (WHO) termed a public health emergency. 

Speaking on the topic, 'lessons from Ebola in managing global health epidemics' at BioAsia conference, Piot said preparedness was the only response to the risk of new virus infection. as no amount of preemptive steps would prevent it from spreading. He says no travel ban has ever helped entirely block the entry of an epidemic in the past.

According to him, the lack of full understanding about the spread of new virus, mortality rate, asymptomatic presence in infected persons and absence of therapy, all calls for 'super' caution against the virus' possible spread.

"Isolation will work only if you are very efficient. China was able to bring the epidemic under control through very very draconian measures that no other country would be able to enforce. In China, the number of cases are falling but we don't know how representative this data is," said Piot, who is a director of London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and professor of Global Health, UK. He added that the next few weeks are crucial to know the virus' spread and control.

Piot said only a few countries like the US and Japan are in a position to handle the possible spread of the epidemic. Some like Singapore know where they stand. "I am not a scaremonger but we cannot take a risk and it is better to have drill before facing the actual break out of fire. ripple effect from Chinese epidemic's economic impact is already felt here in India. (In India) every state should have a laboratory capable of detecting cases of virus infection instead of taking every blood sample to Pune for testing," he said and warned that even human influenza virus was going to make a comeback at some point, as it was not part of India's vaccine programme. 

Compared to the outbreak of previous epidemics such as SARS in China in 2003 and Ebola in East and Central Africa (2014), the public health expert says the technology is so developed now that the detection of new viruses is done in a matter of few hours, but the global mobility of people make the risk that much real.

Piot is not sure if the companies and countries would be able to bring out an effective vaccine against the new coronavirus quickly, and even if there was one, he thinks the question of affordability will determine the actual effectiveness of the therapy, as had happened in containing the spread of Ebola in 2014. While half a dozen companies, including some start-ups had announced research projects on development of anti-COVID-19 vaccine, at least one vaccine is likely to be ready by the end of this year in the best case situation, according to the professor.

"The good news is that we will have a vaccine at the time of next break out of the epidemic," he said on the time taken to develop a vaccine in the normal course. While the commercial exploitation of  therapies found against  those viral epidemics in the past was very limited,  it could be different in case of the present epidemic, according to Piot.

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