'If you look at the age group of people who died in India, the average age is 35!'
'That's why as a country we should be much more concerned.'
The Sree Chitra Thirunal Institute of Medical Sciences and Technology, one of the leading medical institutes in Kerala, recently unveiled a testing kit, the Chitra Gene LAMP-N for COVID-19, produced by its team.
The team has also developed another kit, Chitra Magna, to extract the RNA (ribonucleic acid) from a patient's swab sample. This can be used both in PCR (Polymerase chain reaction) and in Chitra Gene Lamp-N tests.
"Think of a day when another small virus, a deadlier one, appears in front of us. That will be the end of the human race. We will be extinct in a second. We are talking about this kind of a danger," Dr Anoop Thekkuveettil, senior scientist at the division of molecular medicine at the institute, below, tells Rediff.com's Shobha Warrier in the first of a two-part interview.
Compared to the other influenza viruses which family it comes from, is COVID-19 deadly or just highly contagious?
It is not very deadly. Just look at the mortality rate; it is just 3%. And the 3% have some other diseases like hypertension, heart disease or diabetes.
Theoretically, the virus is harmless. It only wants to have as many hosts as possible and spreading very fast. That is the only different characteristic it is showing now.
We have no idea why it is spreading so fast unlike other influenza viruses which have only a limited spread.
Is there any difference in the lifespan of this virus compared to the other viruses?
Not much. I think it is because we are very worried about its spread that we are giving too much importance to this virus!
Yes, its spread is very scary. It is trying to get into everyone.
How long do you think it will go on spreading? Till we acquire herd immunity?
I think by the end of June, 50% of the Indian population will have this virus.
The worry is that Indian population is unhealthy. Our respiratory systems are not that good because of pollution and TB, as this is a respiratory disease.
Another thing that we are coming to know from Kerala is that people are showing some resistance.
The symptoms are appearing only 30 to 35 days after the infection. Usually, you should get the symptoms after 14 days.
Somehow, the virus is slowing down within us. Maybe we have developed resistance.
You mean, people have started showing resistance now?
Yes. Initially, it was 14 days, but now, the virus seems to be taking more time to show the symptoms.
If the virus is taking more time to dominate its host, it is much more dangerous. It means we will peak later on, maybe in November or December. It is a possibility.
Do you think the BCG vaccine has a role in us developing some resistance to the virus?
WHO does not agree with this.
But in countries like India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, etc where we give BCG vaccine, the number of cases is low. But then that is because we are not testing. I feel that's why our numbers are low.
The number of reported deaths is also low unlike in the US or Europe or the UK.
If you look at it critically, how many deaths are normally reported in India?
When old people die, we don't want to say that they died of corona. We say he was a heart patient and suddenly he developed fever and died. We don't even test him to see whether he was COVID-19 positive.
We don't know our actual numbers because we are not testing. Only if every dead person is tested for COVID-19 will we know whether he died a natural death or due to the virus.
A lot of deaths happen normally in India, and that versus COVID-19 deaths is not tallied in India.
So, is it a data problem?
Our health indicator is pretty low compared to the rest of the world. I am looking at what is happening in Kerala, where the health indicator is higher. Here, I do not see a large number of patients complaining of high fever.
Yes, there is some kind of difference in the way the virus is behaving in this part of the world. That's for sure. If so, it is a good sign.
I also want to say that in Europe and the US, the testing is very high. If the US is testing 1 lakh people every day, we have so far only tested 6 lakh people in the whole of India.
The US has so far tested 80 lakh to 90 lakh people. And look at the population of India and the US.
We are just looking at the low number of cases and saying we are better off. No, it is very wrong. Unless we test a very large number of people, we will not get the right number.
Why is it that suddenly the numbers are increasing in India? It is only because we are doing more testing than in the initial days.
COVID-19 infection is preventable and nobody is going to die. It IS basically only a fever and cold.
So if it is tested and treated early, it is not dangerous?
The problem is, we are not testing everybody. When will the patient go to the hospital? Only when he has high fever and pneumonia. When a patient has pneumonia, you have to admit him to hospital.
If lakhs and lakhs of people come suddenly with pneumonia, what will you do? That's the scary part.
So, what is needed is, we should test everybody. Then we can observe the positive patients and also treat everybody with fever with paracetamol. Then, no deaths will happen.
Would you say if a person has fever and cold, S/he can take paracetamol and take rest?
No, it is better not to do self-medication. It is also better to report so that somebody is there to observe.
And without testing, how will you know whether a person is infected with COVID-19 or not? So, testing is very important. Even if you are sitting at home, you would give the virus to the others at home.
It is better to wear a mask if you experience a slight chill or fever, and wash your hands even when at home. And don't use the common toilet.
What is the difference between the common influenza virus and COVID-19?
There is no difference.
But with paracetamol common flu gets cured...
Here also, you will get cured. The treatment is the same.
The problem here is, it spreads alarmingly. And each person will have a different symptom. Some may go faster into the pneumonia stage. It all depends on the health status of the person.
Another problem with this virus is, it enters the body through the ACE receptor. This protein will be higher in of all those who take medicine for hypertension.
The reason why more people are suffering abroad is because a majority of the population suffers from heart disease.
India has a younger population, but young does not mean you are healthy. Here we have other diseases like diabetes.
If you look at the age group of people who died in India, the average age is 35!
More younger people are dying in India than in the US where the average age of the dead is 65 plus.
That's why I feel as a country we should be much more concerned. It points to the general health of the nation. I hope ICMR and the others are looking at these trends.
Recently a study conducted by an institute in Bengal found that the virus has mutated into 10 types, and A2a is the dominant one here in India.
Yes, the virus is mutating very fast. Now that all the countries are isolated, the virus is becoming independent, which means each country has a different mutant virus.
Like the Chinese, the Indians and the Europeans look different, this virus also is becoming different in different countries.
The problem is, if this isolation continues for a longer period, a person coming from say the US will encounter a newer virus in India and vice versa.
So, it will not be the same COVID-19...
No, it will be COVID-19a, COVID-19b, COVID-19c, etc. Then, people will have more trouble. How will we be able to handle different kinds of viruses?
You mean, we will develop immunity only to the virus that is prevalent in that region?
Yes. We will definitely develop immunity to the virus because we are also living organisms. We will find a way out, but we will take more time, that's all.
How long does it take for herd immunity to develop?
It depends on how many healthy people can carry this. You can say we have developed herd immunity only when a large number of the population do not show any symptoms.
Once the virus establishes a host, it will not spread. That's why there is this scientific theory that, just don't do anything, let the virus decide. It will kill a certain number of people and the rest will develop immunity. That's one way of getting out of the situation.
But if you start testing and isolating people, the virus will stay longer. The war between the human beings and the virus will go on for a longer period.
These are the theoretical points.
I know we will recover as this is not a dangerous virus.
But the danger is lurking somewhere else. That is, we are going to meet somebody else very soon. The signs are already there.
As I said earlier, we have an influenza virus, cats have influenza virus, dogs also have another influenza virus... each virus was happy in their own host.
Now, all of a sudden, we see a new trend; one virus from one animal is fusing with another virus from another animal.
This is the third time we are seeing this trend. First, the SARS H1N1, then the MERS CoV which is a virus from the camel fusing with a virus from the bat. The mortality rate of MERS-CoV was 50%.
You said COVID-19 is a fusion of viruses from the bat and the ant-eater. So the bat is the common factor.
So far we see the bat as the common factor.
Why is it so?
The question that we have to ask is, are we disturbing its habitat?
Somehow, the virus gets the feeling that the bat is going to go away. So, the virus wants to change the host. Probably that's what is happening.
Maybe there are not enough trees and fruits for the bats, and their survival is at risk.
We human beings are cutting down trees and building apartments. Where will the bats live? Where will they get their food from?
Another new species of virus may come tomorrow. The question is, are we ready to face such a virus?
Do you feel this is a kind of warning to all human beings?
I feel it is a warning.
The Mortality rate of COVID-19 is very low. But if such a virus with high mortality rate attacks human beings?
Yes, that's the question.
We will survive COVID-19. But tomorrow some other virus may attack us which could be very dangerous. That's what the trend shows.
This is the third fusion and the gap between each fusion virus is reducing.
Maybe in three years's time, we may see another virus that may kill whoever that gets infected. What are we going to do then?
Why is it that two viruses are fusing all of a sudden? That's why people are suspecting whether it is created in a lab.
Do you think COVID-19 is created in a lab? Or, naturally created?
It has every signature of a naturally created virus.
You can have conspiracy theories. But who will do that? I don't think any scientist will do it because we all know the consequences.
See, it is very easy to fuse two viruses in a lab. It is just two days's work. It is a very simple experiment, we can easily do it in the lab.
I feel this is a naturally born virus, and it is a very serious trend.
Do you feel this is nature's way of warning human beings for disturbing its balance?
Yes, that's what I feel. We are ruthlessly destroying the habitats of various creatures. For example, bats need trees, caves and dark spaces to live.
Bats are mammals, very close to us and carry very good viruses. But we destroy their food, their habitats.
When their number is diminishing very fast, the viruses living inside them have to go somewhere else.
You can blame China for consuming bats. But, is it the market that created this virus, or, are we all responsible for this?
We are destroying nature without any conscience.
I am giving you an example. Dogs have their own very deadly viruses in them, one of which is parvo. If parvo attacks a dog, the dog bleeds and dies. There is a vaccine for it.
So far, parvo has never infected human beings. Think about a day when parvo is passed from a dog to a human!
We all have very dangerous viruses living in us and if one species is threatened, the virus will move from that host to another.
And these viruses can multiply in a second. They can mutate and fuse with another one.
And, we are seeing such bad signs.
I feel we have to be a lot more careful and respect nature.
So, it is not just about health, but about the way we are living and dealing with nature.
Yes, this is a big warning from nature. If we ignore this warning, the consequences will be deadlier than what we can even imagine.
This whole species can be eliminated in a second! And if you look at history, you will know how many species got eliminated.
We think we human beings are invincible. No. This small virus has made the entire world close down
Think of a day when another small virus, a deadlier one, appears in front of us. That will be the end of the human race.
We will be extinct in a second. We are talking about this kind of a danger.
Nature is experimenting, and this is not the first time nature is doing it. It has been continuously experimenting.
We have created some kind of imbalance in nature, and we are seeing the result of our own deeds.
When we abuse nature, we will have to pay the price too.
If we can correct the wrongs done by us, it is better we correct them now itself. If not...