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Alternative approach to combating COVID pandemic

Alternative approach to combating COVID pandemic
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Alternative approach to combating COVID pandemic

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An alternative approach to combating the COVID pandemic is to use Phage Therapy. Phages are viruses like coronavirus. However, they are beneficent. They kill disease-creating bacteria in the body. That increases the immunity of the body and makes it possible to face the attacks by coronavirus

The government was driving the economy till March as if the coronavirus pandemic was a one-time catastrophe that will get abated with vaccination of large numbers of our people. As it has happened, the second wave has come perhaps two months before the widespread vaccination could be done. The government has avoided imposing lockdown that is being asked for by the medical fraternity as it has to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea. The economy will collapse more and people will die less if lockdown is imposed. The economy will collapse less and people will die more if lockdown is not imposed. The bigger issue is that this second wave may not be the last; and the present vaccines may not quite work against the future variants of coronavirus.

Firstly, second wave may not be the last. Countries have faced third and even fourth waves. More importantly, the Covid virus is mutating. Ewen Callaway writes on nature.com website that in January 2021 "biotech firm Novavax released data from clinical trials showing that its experimental vaccine, designed to combat the original virus, was about 85% effective against a variant identified in the United Kingdom — but less than 50% effective against 501Y.V2," which is known as the South Africa variant. This means that the vaccines that are effective against the present strains may not be effective against new mutated strains. Callaway explains that it is normal for viruses to mutate. The influenza virus, for example, mutates frequently. The World Health Organization has established a Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza in Melbourne, Australia. This center monitors emerging flu strains for genetic changes that might influence the effectiveness of presently available vaccines for influenza. They continuously assess whether the mutations are "widespread". They stand back and wait and watch if a new strain is localized to one region or country. They start the process of making a new vaccine if they find the new strain to be widespread.

Coronavirus is similarly likely to mutate continuously requiring continuous production of new vaccines. The present vaccines against coronavirus might have to be updated periodically, as they are for influenza. We do not know how much time it may take to update the vaccines and how much damage they may perpetrate before a vaccine is made to combat the new strain. We should not, therefore, be under the impression that we will become free of COVID-19 if the entire population of the country is vaccinated.

An alternative approach to combating the COVID pandemic is to use Phage Therapy. Phages are viruses like coronavirus. However, they are beneficent. They kill disease-creating bacteria in the body. That increases the immunity of the body and makes it possible to face the attacks by coronavirus. Professor Andrez Gorski of Poland has said that the beneficent phages can additionally block the pathways of the disease-creating virus. Let us say, coronavirus has entered a person's lungs. It is trying to enter the cells of the lungs. It would not be able to enter the cells of the lungs if the beneficent virus has already entered the lungs and blocked the cells through which coronavirus would have wanted to enter.

S. Mert Selimoglu of Pak Group of Companies of Turkey says on the Capsid & Tail Newsletter that one way of dealing with the problem is to administer a mixture of phages as a vaccine. Such mixtures are called "cocktail" in medical parlance. He says that administering a cocktail would enable the vaccine to self-select which bacteria are present in the body. It is like the farmers sowing a mixture of seeds. Those that suit the particular weather grow well; and others die. Similarly, administering a cocktail of phages enables the phages to select the viruses present and attack them. A vaccine made of such cocktail of phages has the advantage that it may be effective against a number of mutations of the COVID virus. The prime requirement for the development of such a cocktail vaccine is the availability of a variety of beneficent phages.

We have an especial advantage here. The National Environment Engineering Institute, Nagpur, has undertaken a study of the Ganga River. They found that the water of upper Ganga river has more than 200 types of phages. In comparison, Yamuna and Narmada have only 20-50 types of phages. Thus, we have available with us cocktail of phages that can be used to make a cocktail vaccine.

The Ganga Today Trust based in Uttarakhand has supplied the Ganga water to hundred-odd persons across the country. They have found that 67 percent of those facing mental health problems got relief. The percentage of persons who got relief in other diseases were as follows: neurological problems 56%, digestive problems 55%, dermatological or skin problems 54%, urological problems 50%, arthritis 45%, diabetes 40%, cardiological problems 36% and respiratory problems 33%. These results are based on small numbers, less than 25 patients of each disease. Nevertheless they provide a prima facie evidence for the efficacy of the phages of Ganga river against a number of diseases.

The Maryland, USA based Adaptive Phage Therapeutics has already made a phage-based vaccine and is conducting Phase I trials.

We must not be under the impression that all will be well after large numbers of our people have been vaccinated. The virus can mutate and the vaccinations can be rendered ineffective. We must plan for the worst.

We have already lost much time. Even now we are running after foreign vaccines that are effective against specific strains. One elderly person told me that he was waiting for the Pfizer vaccine to become available. Only then he would get vaccinated. We must immediately launch a massive program to make a cocktail phage based vaccine for COVID.

The government must not run on business-as-usual mode. The policy of the government is to borrow heavily and continue its "consumption"—salaries and perks—as previously. The hope is that the bad times will pass, economy will bounce back, and the borrowings made will be repaid. That may not happen. The second wave may be followed by a third wave; and the third may be followed by a new strain. No one knows how the situation will play out. But we must plan for all eventualities.

(The author is formerly Professor of Economics at IIM, Bengaluru)

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