In an exclusive interview with The Business Standard, Cambridge University Professor Gordon Dougan – a world authority on vaccines, genomics and the epidemiology of infectious diseases including antibiotic resistance – said he is hopeful about finding a cure of coronavirus.
"We will find medicines that work as we did for HIV but it will take time," he said.
Professor Gordon said hot weather may help Bangladesh fighting coronavirus, but "we will have to watch carefully how this develops."
He has contributed to the development of several vaccines (e.g. whooping cough, cholera, typhoid) and was previously listed in the top ten most influential people in the vaccine world.
He has worked for numerous international bodies and organisations including the World Health Organization, the GSK Institute for Global Health and the International Vaccine Institute (Korea).
He is currently a professor in the Department of Medicine, University of Cambridge and was formerly Head of Pathogen Research at the Wellcome Sanger Institute.
TBS: As Covid-19 is spreading to more areas each day, the world is eagerly waiting for a vaccine. How long could it take to get a vaccine?
Gordon Dougan: This will depend on two main factors. First, how much of the normal practices that are used to develop and license vaccines are dispensed with during the projects. Vaccine development normally takes years because of stringent safety and validation rules but these may have to be moved to post or after licensing in emergencies.
Secondly, it depends on if the vaccine shows any evidence of working or not. One problem we have is we currently cannot tell if a COVID-19 vaccine might work just from measuring simple immunity. Even if we vaccinate at the moment we have no simple way of knowing if it works. It will need to measure actual protection against disease.
TBS: The WHO has launched Solidarity Trial to find a cure and they demand it may help them find a cure sooner than usual. In their words, it will cut times by 80 percent. How do you evaluate this?
Gordon Dougan: Again, this is trying to fast track the licensing of medicines for sale. We need cures that really do work and not those someone - who has no authority to do so and by authority I mean the regulatory bodies for medicines - tells us works.
Unfortunately, not all countries have good regulatory bodies for medicines. There are authorities in countries that are there to test and validate medicines using good scientific practice. They are strong in some countries, not in others. We need to strengthen them. The WHO has a key role to play as do governments and their regulatory authorities.
TBS: There are a number of trials going on around the world and a number of medicines that are being touted as potential cures. Do you see any promise in any of them?
Gordon Dougan: I think we will find medicines that work as we did for HIV but it will take time.
TBS: Covid-19 dominated in China at the beginning but they dramatically brought the situation under control. But it seems USA and the European countries apparently did not become as successful as China in curbing it. What did China do that USA and the European countries have failed to do?
Gordon Dougan: This is a bit early to call as the epidemic is still ongoing and is far from over. China introduced incredibly strict rules to contain the virus. It is not so easy for some countries to do this.
TBS: Bangladesh, a densely populated country, is now at the fourth stage with more than 1800 confirmed cases and 75 deaths. What is your suggestion to bring the situation under control?
Gordon Dougan: Bangladesh is fortunate that it has outstanding groups and individuals within ICDDR-B and other universities and agencies. I think you should work with them to bring things under control in your country. You are better placed than many others. Here I am not talking about governments but about the scientists and clinicians you have. If the government listens to them then it is for the best.
TBS: Is there any possibility that Bangladesh's climate and weather condition help in reducing the fatality of coronavirus in the country?
Gordon Dougan: We hope so. Hot weather may help but we will have to watch carefully how this develops.
TBS: To wear a mask or not? Why is there this debate?
Gordon Dougan: There are pros and cons to this. Masks are a mixed blessing. They can stop some larger particles such as droplets but they also encourage touching and fiddling. I do not wear one but I think this is something of a country or even personal choice.
TBS: Do you find any similarities between Covid-19 and the Spanish flu? Did we take any lesson from the past?
Gordon Dougan: My blog says people in the 'richer' countries are being re-educated about the power of epidemics. I think Spanish flu came at the end of The First World War and was lost in all of the loss of life associated with that. We will have to learn from COVID-19 and other epidemics.
We always need to anticipate the threat. We need to educate people about how to deal with an epidemic and have stockpiles of essential materials for doctors and healthcare workers.
TBS: How do you see life after Covid-19?
Gordon Dougan: I am not sure life will be exactly the same after COVID-19. Look how bubonic plague transformed life in the European middle ages. One third of the population died in Europe. For those who survived it was very difficult for a decade but because there were less people the survivors eventually flourished and things like the Renaissance followed.