In an exclusive conversation with India Today as part of the E-Conclave Corona Series, Pulitzer-winning author and cancer surgeon Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee says that while there is hope at the end of the novel coronavirus tunnel, scientists just need some time to come up with a vaccine or drug to fight the virus.
Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee has also authored The Laws of Medicine
Dr Mukherjee is the editor of Best Science Writing 2013
His latest work is THE GENE: An Intimate History
An assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University and a cancer physician and researcher, Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee is most popularly known as the author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Dr Mukherjee was awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction for his book.
Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee joined India Today’s Rajdeep Sardesai for an exclusive discussion on the novel coronavirus outbreak and how it has changed the world. “The main thing we want is to buy time until we get a good vaccine or drugs. There are drugs coming, there is hope at the end of this tunnel, a vaccine will come. Everyone’s job is to buy us time. If you can buy us the time, we are trying our best.”
What India can learn from America?
Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee: India can learn from America about preparedness. The first case was reported on January 21 in Washington, the first proper kits were not available until the first week of March. We are talking about 40 days.
All viruses have an R0 number attached to it. It means the number of people one can infect. “Preparation is key,” Dr Mukherjee says.
Full coverage of E-Conclave 2020 Corona Series
What makes Covid-19 so different?
Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee: There are two features. Asymptomatic carriers can carry the virus and spread it, this is very unique. It’s not the case for Corona’s cousins SARS and MARS.
The second feature is if you don’t have any protection, the R0 keeps rising.
hat do we know about Covid-19?
Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee: There are plenty of people in their 20s and 30s who have died from the disease. Older people co-morbid conditions
We know the sequence of the virus, the genes. We also know potential places to attack the virus which is what the vaccine is about but it will take time. There are, however, many things still unknown.
Where are we on drugs for Covid-19?
Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee: When you develop a new drug against a virus, it goes through certain phases. The first phase is when an existing drug is re-purposed. There are two drugs in that category that stand out right now, are Hydroxychloroquine and remdesivir by Gilead
The second drugs are antibodies, these latch on specifically to coronavirus. Antibodies have to be produced in large quantities and have to be kept very clean.
Viruses have special capabilities to make copies of themselves. The third category of drugs is those meant to locate these copy-making abilities of viruses.
The fourth category is the vaccine. They take a very long time but are the most effective. Most importantly, the safety profile for a vaccine is crucial. The fastest vaccine we have developed is in 14-18 months.
What is the best strategy for this pandemic?
Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee: There is no one solution, it is a combination of solutions. Countries can only stay in lockdown for so long. If you don’t do lockdown, the cases rise exponentially. If the virus is allowed to spread unchecked, the number of cases will surpass the world’s population in 40 days.
By lockdown, we try not to overwhelm the healthcare system. We lower the curve of the spread of infection.
There are conditions that can allow us to get out of the lockdown. The first is testing that reveals what the real numbers are. The second is quarantine and isolation can be done using technology. The third is, you can lock down your own respiratory system.
Lockdown has to be removed along with testing and in phases.
Will we enter a changed world post-coronavirus?
Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee: It will be a changed world. We will be better prepared for the next pandemic. Many countries acted late. Stigma will be attached to those infected with coronavirus.
How much credence do you give to the fact that Covid-19 was developed in a lab?
Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee: I personally do not believe that.
Will you write a book on the history of Covid-19?
Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee: I have a book that has a dedicated section on viruses and vaccines. But I don’t see myself writing a book on the history of Covid-19, as of now.