As the UK enters the fourth week of lockdown, CoVID-19 is at the centre of every news article. Leading the way with his expertise, Lancaster University’s Dr. Muhammad Munir has been interviewed by countless news channels, using his research on coronaviruses to help inform the general public on this outbreak. Wanting to celebrate the scientific research that is being done at our university in the midst of this pandemic, I reached out to Dr. Munir with some questions regarding CoVID-19.
What factors do you think have led to this strain of coronavirus being worse than others?
There are two kinds of viruses; lethal and short-lived vs less lethal and persistent. The SARS-CoV-2 appears to be finding a fine balance between lethality and contagiousness which are unique features of viruses that are stable in the environment and stay longer in the human population. Additionally, asymptomatic carriers and it targeting communities that are already frail are making this virus different if not unique in the history of infectious diseases.
Do you have any predictions on the course of this pandemic and if eventually CoVID-19 will become endemic?
Given the contagiousness of the virus, broken healthcare systems and lack of global leadership, it is being anticipated that CoVID-19 will sustain in the population and may become seasonal until across the board efforts are made to unroot it completely. Disease presence in thin economies would pose a hanging threat to the health of the globe and may ultimately stimulate resurgence of CoVID19 in future.
Can you discuss some of the diagnosis options that are currently in development, including the new smart testing device you are involved with?
There is an urgent need to develop diagnostic assays that can be applied at the point of care, for example at nursing homes with minimal training. This is fundamental to identify the spectrum of viral infections in the population which can help tackle the contagion through multiple routes; lowering the burden on health care system, providing confidence to the general public and underpinning continuous monitoring of vulnerable communities. Antibody-based assays are essential in ultimately guiding the lockdown exit strategies. While antigen and antibody-based assays are in place, they need improved specificity and sensitivity to ensure reliability. Exploiting innovative technologies, smart devices are being developed to minimize manual handling, warn social distancing, and to confidently guide the phasing out of social distancing measures.
Are there any changes society could make to help reduce the risk of future zoonotic diseases becoming pandemic?
The matter of fact is that whenever humans have interfered with wildlife, we have faced a novel disease. This urges the need of legislation on wildlife conservation, exploitation and breeding. As a member of society, discouraging wildlife products and promoting alternatives would constrain the use of wildlife. National and international legislations are urgently needed to intervene in the wildlife-human interface, without such interference the threat of a next pandemic will always remain.
Finally, what is your main advice to the general public in staying safe and helping stop the spread of the virus?
Deep into the pandemic, we are left with only a few choices. The primary option is to follow social distancing advice and intervene in the transmission of the virus. This will alleviate the burden on the health care system and will allow time to develop effective drugs and a vaccine; which are major bottlenecks in curtailing this contagion.
Stay at home, Protect the NHS, Save lives.
To keep up with Dr. Munir’s research, follow him on twitter at @ViralZoonosis
Written by: Roisin Weaver