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COVID-19: A personal encounter

Nandkumar M Kamat

I have been teaching virology for the past 27 years. So from December 2019, I had been monitoring the new outbreak in China. In December, when this new SARS like coronavirus emerged, I told the students that it was different from other coronaviruses. Earlier in the same class we had discussed Ebola outbreak in Africa.

On January 7, I alerted the health minister (HM) Vishwajit Rane after the outbreak appeared in Hong Kong and next day informed about it to chief secretary (CS) Parimal Rai. I asked both not to take risk till it enters India, keep staff alert and informed in advance. As India became aware on the new coronavirus, again I sent this message to HM and CS: “This is an emergency. We have no immunity against it at all. Alert your team. Impose quarantine at MPT and Dabolim for inbound passengers from South East Asia.”

 When the death toll in China rose to 17, on January 22 I advised them to be very alert and very careful and we can’t take any chances. On January 24 I advised them to maintain vigil in Goa on arrival points. After sending available information on transmission routes and symptoms I predicted that it could reach India and Goa in less than ten days. On January 25, when death toll climbed to 41 and infection reached Europe, this was my message to HM: “41 deaths in such short period is extremely alarming and even if one case goes undetected in Goa hundred would get infected in a single day.” This was warning against a potential super-spreader. The Goa government then constituted a task force. Since then I have continued to send important information on the pandemic and various aspects of COVID-19 to the government. The latest alert was on the development of the new mutated strain which infected people in Italy, rest of the Europe and USA.

The Goa government was guided on setting up of the viral testing laboratory with the assistance of Goa-based molecular virologist Suresh Kunkalikar who has decades of experience on plant viruses and RNA viruses like COVID-19. From Malaysia my ex-student molecular biologist Kenneth Rodrigues also sent lot of information on testing and biosafety measures and how the virus is spreading.

On February 1, I asked three MSc students of the botany department of Goa University – Samantha Pinto, Siddhi Parab and Asma Kidiyoor to launch a dedicated Whatsapp group for students on the new coronavirus. It was one of first such groups in world at that time and has seen 1600 posts in three months. The students monitored the pandemic situation on daily basis and uploaded the information. Most critical information, news items, statistical data, expert opinions, research papers and reports were sent to the state government, journalists and prominent doctors. After Goa government declared certain measures from March 14, Hamesha Naik and Savita Koli and Pranjali Gaonkar started Goa-Covid19 group which has seen 500 posts so far. This was very helpful to students during the lockdown period. By using the online platform, the students were also given a real time quiz on structure and the function of 16 proteins of coronavirus.

Using Ligandscout molecular docking software the students also attempted to find the best drugs available for binding certain COVID-19 proteins. The students were also trained to study the evolution of COVID-19 one of the first such exercise to be given online in Goa and they successfully completed the same and posted the output for evaluation. The lesson which the students learned from all these exercises before and after the lockdown was that it helps to be prepared in advance when we are dealing with RNA viruses. Initially they didn’t believe me when I told them the importance to start a dedicated WhatsApp group on COVID-19. Today they all have the best information on all the aspects of the new coronavirus. They have done statistical analysis of morbidity and mortality due to COVID-19 from the beginning till March 31, April 15, April 30 and will complete it after getting the data for May 31. The analysis will then be published.

The take-home lessons for Goa from COVID-19 are many. First Goa has a pre-existing viral load and COVID-19 is a new entrant. Second, only accurate RT PCR based testing and not presumptive antibody-based testing can save Goa from a second wave. Third, government which failed since 1963 to develop tropical virology as a medical subject and set up a dedicated local virology lab can’t work with entry level biosafety level 2 laboratory and a single PCR machine borrowed from some other lab. We need biosafety level 3 lab with a bank of modern PCR machines. Fourth, people are microbiologically illiterate and have no idea about what a virus is.

The battle has just begun and the danger is not yet over. Unless Goa is able to conduct a minimum one thousand RT PCR tests per day, we are not safe.

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