By Dr Peter Kirira
As the world continues to grapple with the effects of the Armageddon-scale coronavirus disease, expert opinion is being drowned by misinformation, deep-seated stereotypes and fake news.
The three most prominent myths I wish to debunk are that Covid-19 was synthesized in the laboratory as a bio-weapon, that scientists have found a cure for the disease and that black Africans are immune to the disease.
Myth One: The Coronavirus was made in a laboratory
Scientists have investigated this claim by carrying out genomic analysis of the virus, SARS-CoV-2. This is the virus responsible for the disease called Covid-19. Their report – published in the scientific journal Nature Medicine – concludes that the virus: “Is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus”. If Covid-19 was as a result of foul play, then it would have had a base skeleton of a known virus that has attacked the human race in the past. Instead, Covid-19 is identical (96%) to a virus found in bats (of course, with some variations) and another found in pangolins. In a nutshell, science has proven that Covid-19 was not made in a lab.
Myth Two: Cure for Covid-19
Charlatans and snake oil salesmen are flouting all manner of cures, ranging from strong tea to distilled Chang’aa (an illicit moonshine drink). No less a personality than US President Donald Trump said on March 19th that Chloroquine was a “game changer” that had shown promising results as a cure for COVID-19. But is it?
Small-scale experiments in which chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine have been given to a few COVID-19 patients in China, Australia and France have shown encouraging results in shortening the course of the disease. Based on limited in-vitro and anecdotal data, the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) currently recommends chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine for management of hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Both chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine have known safety profiles with the main concerns being cardiotoxicity, but have been reportedly well-tolerated in COVID-19 patients. However, currently, there is no available data from Randomized Clinical Trials (RCTs) to inform clinical guidance on the use, dosing or duration of hydroxychloroquine use for prophylaxis or treatment of SARS-CoV-2 infection. Larger clinical trials are therefore necessary to determine how effective the drug is, the optimal dosing, duration of treatment and other pharmacological information. Several research teams have embarked on this challenge but to the best of our knowledge, no such research is being undertaken in sub-Saharan Africa. The Kenyan Government should therefore urgently mobilize resources to empower local researchers to undertake such studies.
We can therefore surmise that in the absence of alternative treatment for hospitalized COVID-19 patients, hydroxychloroquine may have beneficial outcomes. In addition to hydroxychloroquine, there are efforts to explore the potential of other drugs. Examples include Lopinavir-ritonavir – under investigation in a World Health Organization study. Remdesiviris is another drug that is currently undergoing extensive research. This investigational intravenous drug has broad antiviral activity that inhibits viral replication through premature termination of RNA transcription and has in-vitro activity against SARS-CoV-2.
Myth Three: Black Africans are immune to the disease
This myth sprung up when the disease was ravaging icy-cold Europe and parts of the American continent as tropical Africa remained largely untouched. The myth has since been debunked. Africa’s patient zero was a 21-year-old Cameroonian based in China. To date, more than two thousand cases of the disease have been reported with about forty fatalities. This is a clear sign that the disease does not discriminate any race. The myth was accentuated by the assertion that the virus (like other respiratory viruses such as flu) cannot survive in Africa’s hot and humid conditions.
A recent study by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that was published in the journal of Social Science Research Network, has found that SARS-CoV-2, doesn’t spread as efficiently in warmer and more humid conditions as it did in colder ones. A rational explanation is that the oily coat of enveloped viruses like SARS-CoV-2, makes them more susceptible to heat than those that do not have one. However, further research has demonstrated that the virus can survive for up to seventy two hours on hard surfaces like plastic and stainless steel at temperatures of between 21-230C (70-73F) and in relative humidity of 40%. This implies that tropical climate alone is not enough to slow the spread of the virus.
In conclusion, the Government of Kenya is in a pole position to institute measures that will minimize the devastating effects of COVID-19. To begin with, the National Emergency Response Committee (NERC) that has been at the forefront in guiding the government’s response to mitigate the spread of coronavirus should recommend to the President the establishment of a COVID-19 Research Network (CORN). This network should pool the expertise of medical professionals and scientists from public and private institutions to collect data on coronavirus and spearhead research into understanding and tackling its spread. This is akin to the Germany’s ‘National Taskforce’ that has been touted as one of the reasons why the country has a low death toll. It is unfortunate that researchers in Kenyan universities and research institutions who should be leading the battle against COVID-19 through real-time research and innovations retreated home alongside primary school children.
This network should include a team that simulates possible scenarios of how the disease will manifest itself in the country within the coming weeks and make informed recommendations on the resources required to manage such outcomes. For instance, how many isolation centres, ventilators, personal protective equipment and health care providers would the country need in a worst-case scenario? In addition, another team within the network should be tasked to explore a management protocol for the disease through cooperation with CDC, WHO and other multilateral organizations that deal with global health, a process that should be backed up by data from local clinical trials. In Germany, the government has invested Kshs. 18 billion in their national COVID-19 research taskforce. Here at home, the Government of Kenya should be ready to set up an emergency fund of about Kshs. 1 billion to support such a multi-institutional research network. This is the time for Kenyans to demand more audience and guidance from researchers and health professionals. The trajectory of COVID-19 in Kenya will depend on sober decisions that are devoid of the usual partisan shenanigans.
Beyond this pandemic, we need to have a national conversation on how to invest in the research centres that have been set up by our academic and research institutions so that they can be at the forefront in predicting and combating similar pandemics. In developing countries, research teams are working closely with the medical staff to provide informed solutions to emerging issues. If there is a lesson that the political class should remember from this pandemic, it is that a day has finally come when Kenyans can only rely on the local health capacity.
Finally, in my opinion, the teams currently carrying out research on this pandemic should be added to the list of essential service providers.
Dr Peter G. Kirira is the Ag. Principal, College of Graduate Studies and Research at Mount Kenya University.