A grim milestone for the world | Sunday Observer

A grim milestone for the world

24 May, 2020

In the words of the World Health Organization Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the world passed the ‘grim milestone’ of five million coronavirus cases around the globe over the past few days, with more than 325,000 deaths. Indeed, it is a very bleak announcement that somewhat undermines the medical advances that we have gained over the past 100 years, after the Spanish Flu claimed more than 50 million lives back in 1918-20. However, it is also true that the death toll could have been much higher if not for advanced medical care and equipment such as ventilators. Moreover, measures such as lockdown and social distancing have also helped to curb the spread of the Coronavirus, which causes the Covid-19 disease that can be fatal in some instances.

Ever since the Coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China late last year, there has been a debate about its origin. One school of thought – and the dominant one – is that it is a virus that naturally occurs in bats which found its away to humans, a process called Zoonotic transmission. There is another, more controversial, theory that the virus had been created in a lab and has been accidentally released. Most scientists, however, believe the first hypothesis. Nevertheless, the WHO has agreed in principle to investigate the origins of the Coronavirus pandemic and its own response to it after nearly 100 countries forwarded a draft resolution to the WHO’s World Health Assembly (WHA) to identify the source of the virus and initiate an ‘impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation’ of the WHO’s response to Covid-19.

“The WHO is committed to transparency, accountability and continuous improvement. We welcome the proposed resolution before this Assembly, which calls for a step-wise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation. So, I will initiate an independent evaluation at the earliest appropriate moment,” the WHO Chief said. This is now likely to occur once the Coronavirus pandemic is controlled to some extent. Right now, in the words of Tedros, the focus should be on “saving lives”.

Even more importantly, the WHA has stressed the importance of equal access for all countries to any medicines and/or vaccines developed to treat Covid-19. This will be of crucial importance to emerging economies such as ours, which cannot afford to pay thousands of dollars per dose of an effective vaccine at a time when their economies have already been battered by the pandemic itself. If the rich countries get priority access to any vaccine or successful drug, the poorer nations will be left out to suffer dire consequences.

Hence the WHO has urged countries and international organisations to work collaboratively to develop, test and scale-up production of safe, effective, quality, affordable diagnostics, therapeutics, medicines and vaccines for the Covid-19 response – including in the licensing of patents to facilitate access to them. This is essential, because there already are signs that some countries are trying to limit supplies of promising drugs such as Remdisivir and also get first access to vaccines at the expense of other nations.

The Sri Lankan scientific community must necessarily get involved in this exercise, led by the Medical Research Institute (MRI), which was the first institute in the region to develop a test kit for the Coronavirus. Our research institutions and universities have world-class research facilities that can become part of this noble exercise. The focus must be on both counts – a drug and a vaccine. They can collaborate with similar institutions in Asia and elsewhere for this purpose. Once a viable vaccine is licensed for manufacture, the state pharmaceutical corporations must be equipped to manufacture it locally, which will help save foreign exchange as well.

Sri Lanka is also becoming a role model due to the way in which it has handled the pandemic. Our sister paper the Daily News carried several articles by foreign writers and news agencies which heaped praise on Sri Lanka’s Coronavirus Response, noting that Vietnam and Kerala State in India are the only other regions in Asia with a similar level of success. They pointed out that the successful nexus between the Security Forces and the Health Sector has been one factor for Sri Lanka’s comparatively low infection and death rates. In fact, a number of other countries are now following this model.

This has also enabled the Government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to cautiously re-open the country for economic and social activity, under strict health guidelines, even as the curfew continues in the Colombo and Gampaha districts, the two most heavily affected districts. So far, the results have been encouraging, with the public generally behaving responsibly (except perhaps for the scramble for the wine stores on a couple of days) in all areas of the country. Social distancing norms are also being observed by the public, along with other measures such as wearing masks.

But now is not the time to let down the guard – health experts say the coming period is the most critical as we must take all possible steps to prevent the formation of clusters and any community transmission of the deadly pathogen. We have so far avoided the latter factor and we should strive to keep it that way. The Police and Security Forces must now be stricter in enforcing the curfew and other social distancing measures, because only one reckless person can reignite the dreaded virus within the community. We only have to watch the world news to guess what could happen if we make one wrong move.