As the whole world puts up a collective fight against the novel coronavirus, some alarming information has appeared in the news — patients who got recovered from Covid-19 are testing positive for the virus again.
This is unusual as people who have once been infected by the virus should build antibodies against the pathogen, and that should prevent them from further infection for at least some time. However, immunologists have no idea till now how long the resistance from the virus can endure. In case of common flu viruses, which are also from the coronavirus family, immunity cannot be guaranteed for more than a few months.
Another reason for this recurrence of Covid-19 in some can be that some people's body slowly replicates virus for an awfully long time and this can sometimes lead to late reactivation.
Yet another possibility is, the tests inferring that the patients have been cured from the disease are generating incorrect results.
While the world struggles over containing and eliminating the Covid-19 that has been devastating the countries across the globe since December 2019, many scientists now say that there can be a resurgence of the disease in the later part of 2020. So, are we ready to tackle the probable 'Covid-20' ('Coronavirus Disease of 2020')?
Viruses generally do not just cease to exist, regardless of what measures are taken. The case of the novel coronavirus, also known as SARS-CoV-2, is no exception.
Although most of the world is still dealing with the initial shock of the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), already mentioned that this novel coronavirus might reemerge in the last quarter of 2020, probably between October and November. Immunologist Dr Rick Bright, former director of Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) of USA, testified that there would be a resurgence of SARS-CoV-2 this fall, greatly compounding the challenges of seasonal influenza and putting an unprecedented strain on the healthcare system, and without clear planning and implementation, 2020 would be the darkest winter in modern history.
At the present moment, experts can only assume the return of the coronavirus later this year. Their assessments are based on the course of previous pandemics and outbreaks, the current status of the fight against the coronavirus, and whatever information they can gather from virology and molecular biology. The novel coronavirus may re-emerge, since other viruses have reappeared after their primary outbreaks. There were two surges of the Swine Flu outbreak — one in the second quarter of 2009, and the second in the last quarter. The early part of the twentieth century saw three waves of the Spanish Flu pandemic, the first had happened in the spring of 1918; then a second, more intense wave hit that fall, which was followed by a third wave in the winter. It would not be unusual by any means for this SARS-CoV-2 to have a second or a third wave as well.
A recent study by researchers at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health found that there is every possibility of a reappearance of the novel coronavirus in the next four years. Although the study did not conclude that social distancing would need to be practised, it suggested that extended or periodic distancing may be required till 2022, unless a vaccine or effective medication was available. Notwithstanding the apparent eradication of the virus, scientists should be vigilant about Sars-CoV-2, since a reemergence could be possible till as late as 2024.
So, are we ready to face a repeated onslaught of the coronavirus? Have we taken lessons from the use of technology as China and Singapore did, or from proactive measures taken by countries like Vietnam, or the universal testing programmes as South Korea undertook? ICT can be the right tool to fight and manage catastrophes like this pandemic. With the right technology in place, government agencies can combat the virus and manage the crisis efficiently.
Vietnam not only took precautionary measures even before the very first case was reported there, they also used ICT to its fullest advantage to successfully contain the outbreak of Covid-19. Very much like Vietnam, Bangladesh cannot afford mass testing as we lack the required resources. Instead, we need to opt for selective but proactive prevention by adopting some general policy actions, such as technology-based contact tracing, ramping up production of medical supplies like PPE, and installing checkpoints at all airports and land borders. By utilising the available resources and exploiting technology, many countries have notably lessened the devastation of Covid-19 and identified their citizens who are at risk.
Possibly the most commonly used technology used by many countries is tracking people's locations through the GPS information generated by their smartphones. This technology has been vital to determining where a person, who has been infected by the virus, traveled before being identified and how many people were in close proximity to that patient.
Data analytics have transformed the way contagions are traced and handled, thereby saving lives. Researchers have been using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to track outbreaks in real-time, so that they can forecast when and where the virus might emerge next and thus devise an adequate response. Blockchain is a key technology in the critical domain of epidemic control and management. Blockchain applications can provide robust, transparent and inexpensive ways of facilitating decision-making and can generate quicker responses during emergencies. In these current circumstances, Blockchain looks to be very promising to become the underlying platform of the global fight against novel coronavirus by tracking the spread of the disease, managing and maintaining the sustainability of medical supply-chains and tracking reliefs and donations.
In an effort to enable contactless and instant temperature screening, AI-powered thermographic cameras can be deployed in public areas to identify those in a crowd who have fever. Facial-recognition systems can be installed to identify those not wearing masks.
From sterilisation and street patrols to food and medicine delivery in quarantined areas, drones can be used to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. The Chinese government deployed industrial drones to execute the world's biggest quarantine operation in Wuhan. Drones can be used for patrolling streets with loudspeakers disseminating the dos and don'ts during a crisis period. They allow authorities to get information out faster while also keeping a safe distance.
FinTech can play a crucial role in containing the virus. Digital transactions, like internet banking, mobile financial services, etc. reduce virus transmission through paper money, which can carry viruses for several days.
Robots are used in many hospitals in China, Singapore and other countries for delivering food, medicine and supplies to patients; to disinfect hospitals and other public areas; to check patients' temperatures; and to answer common questions. The use of robots spares healthcare workers the risk of contracting the virus. Singapore has been using robot dogs in the parks to enforce social distancing.
Having said all these, the next waves of the Covid-19 pandemic should not be as devastating as the first, only if we are prepared with technologies to tackle them. We also should gather knowledge and experience from the current outbreak, and be prepared to improve the way we test, identify and isolate the patients and trace the people who may have been exposed to the virus though them. Data Analytics technologies can play a big role in doing this.
Various strains of SARS-CoV-2 will probably be emerging soon. Right now, there are at least eight strains of the virus propagating around the world. The good thing is that although the strains somewhat vary from each other, no single one seems to be more threatening than the others. Also, it is highly expected that there will be more effective treatments in place by the end of 2020. Besides, as SARS-CoV-2 mutates about 10 times slower than the influenza virus, it will be easier to manage its spread once the medications are there.
The author is the president of Bangladesh Association of Software & Information Services (BASIS).