Mikhail Shchelkanov: Russia has the world’s best biological security system

What is the current coronavirus situation in the world and in Russia? Should we expect an epidemic or is the danger subsiding? Is our country reliably protected and are things different in Europe? Invest Foresight has discussed these questions with Mikhail Shchelkanov, Doctor of Biology, Head of the International Research and Education Center for Biological Security at the Far Eastern Federal University, Head of the Laboratory of Virology at the Federal Scientific Centre of East Asia Terrestrial Biodiversity of the Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The COVID 19 outbreak declines in Wuhan, widens in Europe

How would you describe the current situation now that the virus is haunting Europe and has even reached the US?

— It is unfolding exactly as epidemiological models have predicted. According to forecasts, ground zero (Wuhan) was expected to begin stabilizing by the end of February, which is what happened – if you look at the daily incidence curve, you will see a sharp decline there. On the other hand, no forecast ever said other provinces of China and other countries would avoid imported COVID 19 cases. And this is what we are also observing now.

It is impossible to rule out virus importation, no matter what precautions are being taken. The most obvious possibility is an infected person easily crossing the tightly controlled border during the incubation period (before clinical symptoms appear), without even knowing they are infected. The disease does not show until later, when they have moved into the new area.

When do they begin to spread the infection to others?

— Closer to the clinical stage, say, two days before any signs of disease show. At that point they begin to export the virus into the environment. And here it is very important to maintain a high degree of readiness in the country’s biological security system to ensure that these imported cases do not lead to epidemic consequences.

Is Russia capable of protecting itself strongly enough?

— It is already showing just such a high degree of protection. Are there any imported cases? Yes, there are. But have they had any major consequences? No. There are no serious outbreaks in Russia, no epidemics. Things look quite different in other countries – in the US, Europe, Iran, South Korea… They are failing to contain the outbreak, to keep it down to isolated cases: the virus is running rampant.

— What is your further prognosis?

— The epidemic in China is slowing down. Chinese public in coordination with the authorities demonstrated brilliant self-discipline abilities. I think in Europe and the United States the virus will be contained. South Korea is causing some concerns. In 2015, it was affected by the largest outbreak of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (distant relative of COVID-19, also a coronavirus) outside the Arabian Peninsula. It was very difficult to contain that epidemic. Now the situation in the country is similar but on a different scale.

Oddly enough, Russia is just approaching the most nerve-racking period. Our biological protection system will be tested for endurance and efficiency. We don’t know yet if there will be any stumbles.

How it works in Russia

 You are talking about a strong system in Russia but Russians are not so confident about it. You are in the Primorye Territory right now, a region closest to China. And, as you claim, there are no cases of the disease there. How is it possible?

— Proximity to China is not that important. We closed the border. It doesn’t matter if China is close or far away. If the outbreak was localized near the border with Russia then we would be more concerned. The wave of the epidemic is not spilling outside Wuhan and neighboring municipalities. There have been isolated cases in other provinces but they did not cause a further epidemic.

Here in Primorye, we currently have seven quarantined people who were evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruiseship (as of March 7 – ed.). They all tested negative for COVID-19. In general, the preventive measures are going as normal. These fears are unsubstantiated. People say we are doomed, nobody can really check anything. Russia has the best biological protection system in the world (and the entire world recognizes it). This is true for the entire country, for every region. This area is overseen by the Federal Supervision Service for Consumer Protection and Welfare, a vertically integrated federal body. Don’t confuse it with the healthcare system that is mainly dependent on the resources of municipal authorities.

My opinion is that this fight against COVID-19 is a drill for our biological security system which is not only proving its own efficiency but also perfecting its operation. They are probably doing it a bit ostentatiously, but I would say it is a ‘simulated combat mission’.     

— There is a lot of information regarding the current coronavirus situation. In particular, some doctors say that Moscow is the only city where you can get tested for the virus. Others say that it is possible to do in all capitals of the Russian regions, and then the sample will be sent to a lab in Novosibirsk…

— Our Chinese colleagues handed the full-length genome sequence of the virus to the global scientific community in early January. Then, in a couple of weeks, a test system was developed based on the polymerase chain reaction: the current molecular and genetic technology allows for doing it very fast. The Vector Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology of the Russian Federal Service for the Oversight of Consumer Protection and Welfare (Rospotrebnadzor) has already started a mass production of test systems and provided them to all Russian regions in sufficient quantity. All developed countries have them, too. These test systems provide a precise diagnosis in two-three hours. By the way, due to them we can monitor the spread of the virus around the world with a level of accuracy that was impossible 20 years ago.

Vaccine for future use

— COVID 19 can be treated: many patients have recovered by now. But there is no vaccine yet. Does it mean that there is an effective treatment?

— The modern science understands the biology of viruses quite well, therefore we, naturally, can say what drugs will be effective. These are RNA-dependent RNA polymerase, coronavirus protease and others. By the way, China’s experience has confirmed their efficiency.

As for the vaccine, it will definitely be developed. All developed countries, as well as Russia are working on it. The thing is that the certification takes time, and the process cannot be sped up. The vaccine needs to be tested for its safety, possible side effects and its anti-viral efficiency. We cannot just administer a shot and the next day say that everything is fine. But I hope there will be no need to use the vaccine at the national level. I hope it will be stored for future use, and used if necessary.

— Is the coronavirus mutating? Will we encounter its new variations?

— Definitely. Any virus, particularly RAN viruses that include coronavirus, does not exist in a single form; there is always a sort of ‘cloud’ of variants which is constantly changing its configuration. The nature of viruses is to mutate in response to herd immunity. For instance, the influenza A virus is constantly mutating. This is a natural process.   

Is COVID-19 more dangerous than other known viruses?

— We cannot say it is among the deadliest ones as regards both fatality rate and contagiousness. Speaking of the former, the number of deaths caused by Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) largely exceeds the COVID-19 death toll. As regards contagiousness, the new coronavirus is less infectious than, say, the influenza A virus, let alone such contagious pathogens as measles and rubella.  

Myths are plentiful

— Theories that claim the new coronavirus targets only Asian people have been debunked. Meanwhile, conspiracy theories about the origin of the coronavirus, which claim that it emerged in one of the numerous labs in China’s Wuhan or that it is a new type of biological weapon, are still popular.    

— I have worked in virology for several decades. As soon as a serious epidemiology situation arises, such conspiracy theories emerge. Take a look back on the 2009-2010 swine flu pandemic: we were told the virus was created by pharmaceutical companies to sell more medications. This is such a common situation that we, virologists and epidemiologists, find it predictable rather than surprising. Today, we know that COVID-19 is a zoonotic virus, with bats being its natural reservoir. The virus overcame cross-species barriers (most probably, at Wuhan’s seafood market), infected humans, and then began to spread as a common respiratory disease. So we should take regular efforts to monitor natural reservoirs of viral infections rather than pay attention to hoaxes and invent theories of the artificial origin of the virus. And this is very difficult as it is not every year that we have required finances. But we cannot miss a single season: missing one or two seasons makes it impossible to reconstruct the dynamics of virus’ potential.   

By Elena Skvortsova

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