Public health should shape virus crisis


A matatu conductor dispenses a sanitiser as people board in Nairobi last week. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG

The world today finds itself operating under severe uncertainty, more than 40 per cent of the global population is now under lockdown due to the one-in-a-century pandemic — coronavirus, 734,994 have been confirmed to be infected and more than 34,781 deaths reported.

World Health Organisation officials note that it took 67 days from the first reported case to reach first 100,000 cases, then 11 days for second 100,000 and just four days for the third 100,000, which shows aggressive acceleration in infections.

As the world is in uncharted waters, the question economists have been bombarded with is about the economic cost of this pandemic.

Even as all efforts are being made to contain the global pandemic, it’s close to impossible to estimate the economic cost and consequences because first, the severe uncertainty remains out of the fact that this is a public health crisis that the world has no cure nor vaccine for and is far from containing its spread.

So until the world overcomes that uncertainty the debate about economics should take a back seat.

Some economists have come up with an interesting term “virus economics” in the debate about whether counties should shut down economies as a trade-off to contain the spread of the virus or should economies remain open as the battle of containing the virus rages? In “virus economics” the admission is that this is a public health crisis, therefore, public health should shape the crisis and the first rule is that all the necessary strategy and resources should be deployed towards slowing down the spread of the virus as the best way to protect the economy.

So, this means we will have to rely on epidemiologist to help us overcome the uncertainty first before we talk about the economic costs and impact.

Now, Larry Brilliant is that kind of epidemiologist, he is the personality who helped eradicate smallpox and 14 years ago he predicted that the next global pandemic will look like what we are almost seeing today.

“A billion people would get sick and as many as 165 million people would die, there would be a global recession and depression and the cost to US economy of $1 to $3 trillion,” he said.

Though the number of infections and deaths have not reached those astronomical figures, the hand of the invisible enemy is the same.

Slowing down the virus infections or flattening the curve as it has become the lingo, has been said to be the point where we reverse the uncertainty and governments and the private sector have invested a lot in testing kits, masks, protective equipment, implementing social distancing, Brilliant in a recent interview with the publication WIRED disagreed. He argued that slowing the virus down is not enough, slowing down without a vaccine is simply decrease the total number of cases now but postponing them. So, one fundamental effort is in the development of a treatment or vaccine that works as soon as possible

One such initiative I know is by Medicago, a Canadian biotech company, partially owned by Philip Morris International, and is part of the tobacco company’s new course based on science, technology and innovation.

Medicago is developing a vaccine for Covid-19 and has recently announced the successful production of virus-like particle — the first step in the development of a vaccine against the disease — which the firm intends to commence preclinical testing for safety, ahead of human trials, slated for August this year. What is more interesting is that the vaccine is being manufactured from tobacco plants.

Back to Brilliant, so he explains that the moment we have a vaccine that works, we will able to have an epidemiologist gold-ring, which is having a large number of people, who are infected with the disease, together with a vaccine, creating a herd immunity which is around 70 to 80 per cent. So getting a vaccine is what will be the tipping scale to permanent de-acceleration and return to normalcy.