Research is key to contain threats of future pandemics

Published : Tuesday, 7 July, 2020 at 12:00 AM
Mir Mosharref Hossain Pakbir

We are still not sure we are heading with COVID-19, especially in Bangladesh. While many of the first effected countries are recovering from its impact through strict lockdown for several weeks, we are still waiting for the fierce phase which may not be very far. What scares us is the possibility that the situation might worsen a lot in the near future. We may overcome coronavirus within the next few months but more dangerous viruses may appear in the future. From the learning of COVID-19, we should now focus a lot more on medical research and development (R&D) by enabling the researchers with proper fund, facility and infrastructure as that might create self-sufficiency for us during such future outbreaks.

Modern science is perhaps facing one of its highest tests yet – the COVID-19 outbreak caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Scientists across the globe are working tirelessly to understand the virus at a molecular level – how it survives, mutates, spreads and infects humans. Collectively, these efforts enhance our ability to develop both preventive and therapeutic strategies against this deadly virus. Vaccines are an example of one such preventive as these are biological products that generate acquired immunity to certain infectious diseases.

Under regular situations, vaccine development, licensure and manufacturing are processes that can take several years to complete. Though, in this critical time, a many healthcare companies, research institutions and authorities are working to accelerate such timelines to rapidly bring a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19. As of June 2020, over 140 vaccines against COVID-19 are in development and 18 of them are in human trials.

Vaccine trials usually undergo three rounds of testing: phase 1, phase 2 and phase 3. The first two trials are typically smaller ones, testing mostly for vaccine safety and biological activity, requiring from 50 to hundreds of volunteers respectively. Due to their smaller size, it’s relatively easy for pharmaceutical companies to run these studies in their home countries. Comparatively, phase 3 trials are a lot more difficult, requiring thousands of volunteers to gauge whether the vaccine works in the real world.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), only the UK’s University of Oxford, which is partnering with the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, has officially launched a phase 3 trial. The other front-runners include US- based Moderna, Inovio and Pfizer, which is partnered with German biotech company BioNTech. China-based companies CanSino, Sinovac and Sinopharm, are also gearing up for their own phase 3 trials in the coming months.

Bringing a vaccine to market is a procedure that usually lasts 5 to 10 years. However, some companies have claimed that they will produce a vaccine by the end of 2020.In early May, governments, organizations and individuals donated about $8.4 billion to the WHO project.The recent COVID-19 pandemic is unique, but the global response draws on the lessons learned from other disease outbreaks over the past several decades. As part of WHO’s response, the R&D Blueprint was activated to improve harmonization between scientists and global health professionals, speed up the research and development process, and develop new norms and standards to learn from and improve upon the global response.

On 30 January 2020, following the recommendations of the Emergency Committee, the WHO Director General declared that the eruption constitutes a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. World scientists on COVID-19 then met at the WHO’s Geneva headquarters on 11-12 February, 2020 to evaluate the present level of information about the new virus, agree on critical research questions that need to be answered immediately and to find ways to work together to accelerate and fund priority research to restrict this outbreak and prepare for those in the future.

The discussion led to an agreement on two main goals. The first was to accelerate innovative research to help contain the spread of the epidemic and facilitate care for those affected. The second was to support research priorities that contribute to global research platforms in hopes of learning from the current pandemic response to better prepare for the next unforeseen epidemic. Building on the response to recent outbreaks of Ebola virus disease, SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, the R&D Blueprint has facilitated a coordinated and accelerated response to COVID-19, including an unprecedented program to develop a vaccine, research into potential pharmaceutical treatments and strengthened channels for information sharing between countries.

Along with many pharmaceutical research institutes around the world, Globe Biotech claims to be the first Bangladeshi company to develop Covid-19 vaccine and is currently undertaking preliminary tests with animal modelling. However, after trials are completed, it would take another six months for the vaccine to be marketed. The company is yet to apply for a patent and before the patent is ensured it would not disclose the data received from the trial. The whole procedure was done following the WHO guideline, the company claimed.

Even if any international or foreign company develops COVID-19 vaccine, according to speculation, 7 billion vaccines are in demand while the researching organizations can serve only 1.2 billion. Moreover, we cannot be sure about the price. Hence, if a local company can develop the vaccine, we might have significant edge in fighting COVID-19 in Bangladesh and might ensure affordable price of the vaccine considering the financial capacity of our people.

Almost all the South Asian countries are now researching for COVID-19 vaccine. India only has made significant progress according to reports. It is noteworthy, that South Asian countries are among the lowest in regions in terms of investment in pharmaceutical or medical research. The budget allocation percentage for health sector is lowest in Bangladesh in comparison to the other South Asian neighbours. Moreover, most of this budget is spent for the salary of the health sector officials and constructions. Very less is allocated for medical or pharmaceutical research. The private sector is mostly contributing in such research. But high-level researches require government funding or even funding from institutions like WHO. To bring in global funds in this sector, we need aresearch friendly infrastructure and a supporting intent as priority.

COVID-19 is not the only deadly pandemic we might have to face. According to trends, different mutated viruses can appear in the future. We cannot depend on outside innovations always as we can already see that such pandemics will make countries selfish. We have to think about self-sufficient research facility. We have many qualified researchers working inside and mostly outside of the country. We need to establish a research-friendly environment so that they get interested to conduct their researches here in Bangladesh. If we fail to act now, we might lag behind in the near future.

Additionally, we must appreciate the works of our researchers like; Dr Bijon Kumar Shil of Gonoshasthaya Kendra and Dr Asif Mahmud of Globe Biotech Limited as that will encourage others to conduct research in Bangladesh. Moreover, in rewarding the innovations, granting research funds and allocating facilities, we should practice fairness irrespective of political identity, religion, gender and any other sort of bias as it is the question of national progress and can even effectively influence the Bangladeshi researchers around the world to conduct their research back at home.

As a fast-developing country, we should provide stimulus and ensure supporting facility for research not only in health sector but also in every other sector like; food, agriculture, ICT and even manufacturing. Only then, Bangladesh will be able to reach all its goals. If we can have our own innovations, have thousands of patients every year and attain superior product quality, then Bangladesh will not only have good business but also high reputation around the globe.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has put a lot of emphasis on the development of Bangladesh. Human indices are a great part of the development indicators. But our health sector does not reflect our development during the last decade. Along with huge corruption, mismanagement and technological constraints, there is very low research facility. We believe the Prime Minister, being a visionary leader, has already realized the need of proper research facility to protect the future of Bangladesh and can hope for health security of our people.
The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), Editor at Kishore Bangla and
Vice-Chairman, Democracy Research Center (DRC)


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