Microbiology and biotechnology

Pakistan is caught in the midst of a pandemic. While the new tested cases and deaths are rising exponentially, the data is not conclusive. Testing through swabs and blood/faecal samples is like a drop in the ocean. Laboratories in Pakistan are under strain due to limited supply of imported testing kits and very limited capability in testing blood/faecal samples. Chinese testing kits are under criticism in Italy and Tanzania. Even in Pakistan, these kits have given varying results. It is most important that Pakistan’s microbiology and biotechnology laboratories take up this challenge to make simulations and predictive models.

As a developing country, Pakistan cannot afford a laid-back approach and depend on overseas research and development. Microbiology and biotechnology, as relatively new scientific disciplines, lessen the technological gap between the developed and developing world. Universities, pharmaceutical companies, laboratories and research organisations related to this subject in health and agriculture must take measures through accelerated research in health, viruses, genetics and agriculture to keep pace. The research must cover the entire biological, botanical, and RNA in humans, animals, flora and fauna. In the past twenty years, Pakistan was leading the world in the development of resistant high yield seeds, only to be deliberately pulled down from the ramp. Why can’t it restart?

In early March, there was news that the Institute of Microbiology at Punjab University, Lahore had developed a very economic system of testing. The news has since died. What happened to this project; it is a case worth investigating.

On March 30, 2020, Dr Ata ur Rehman said, “The Chinese strain has more potent chromosomes than the Pakistani strain of the coronavirus.” He said that the revelation came during recent research carried out at the Jamil-ur-Rahman Centre for Genome Research at the University of Karachi. Even in the USA, some states are recording lesser fatalities than New York because of the preponderance of a weaker strain. As COVID-19 spreads and diversifies into more than 11 identifiable strains, the bottom line is that the virus causing fatalities in Europe and USA is a different strain from the one that emerged in Wuhan, China or even Pakistan.

NUST Islamabad flashed a ground-breaking testing research into the virus in collaboration with Wuhan Institute of Virology China, DZIF Germany, Columbia University USA and Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) Rawalpindi.

It would be wise to coordinate this research between NUST, Punjab and Karachi Universities. The run should not be for an exclusive patent but a Pakistani patent.

A Pakistani Russian scientist also claimed he had a cheap cure. This was followed by a press conference by a Pakistani Pharma Company with its own doctors offering a modified anti-viral drug and spray already in use in New Zealand and Russia. How true and how potent are the discoveries is yet to be ascertained. Has the government in limited ways tested these cures or is it dragging its feet through the maze of scientific bureaucracy, FDA approvals, WHO and CDC?

All above developments are reassuring because the future of Pakistan depends on how the country can develop its own systems. Once it comes to microbiology and biotechnology, there is a convergence. The two most critical areas are health and agriculture and Pakistani scientists are second to none.

Laboratories and universities the world over are in a race against time, identifying deadly strains that according to some experts, mutate once a month. There is a blame game converging on China. Worldwide research has so far identified eleven strains. Some scientists fear that newer evolutions could be deadlier and research must keep in pace with a broader spectrum of research in corona pandemic viruses. Wild bats are the focal point of most researches and this is where USA and China link together.

There is a competition and turf war going on between the scientific communities, state regulators, corporates and invisible bio laboratories the world over. In USA, doctors and scientists are critical of CDC, Lugar Centre, the Pentagon bio laboratory in Tbilisi Georgia, Eco Health Alliance USA and many other laboratories. This war is not only about patents and discoveries but also incriminating allegations related to biological warfare and inadequate safety precautions.

Critics cite that the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China (a BSL4 bio laboratory) had received a grant of 3.7 million from USA through the Eco Health Alliance USA from 2014-2019. The research included screening wild-caught and market sampled bats from 30 or more species for corona, using molecular assays; genomic characterisation and isolation of novel CoVs; virus infection experiments across a range of cell cultures from different species and humanised mice. Peter Daszak, President of Eco Health Alliance, maintains he collected bat samples with Chinese colleagues but the Wuhan laboratory only did genetic sequencing. Scientists suspect that the viruses were stored in Tbilisi Georgia, the nerve centre of US research.

Then why does USA continue to blame China is a question that shall only be answered when more whistleblowers join the chorus. The criticism by scientific communities against their own cannot be whisked away as a conspiracy theory. Right now, it is conjecture.

Pakistan is a country with very deep-rooted international corporate interests in nearly every area of national development. These include economics, pharmaceuticals, industry, health and agriculture. Though Pakistan may be new in the field of virology, results produced by Pakistani scientists in agriculture are remarkable but sabotaged in interests of international GM and BT corporates. If past is precedent, Pakistan’s research in the field of health could meet the same fate.

In a recent talk show, an anchor questioned Jahangir Tareen, why he chose sugarcane instead of cotton and wheat in water-starved South Punjab. His straight response was that there had been no research in Pakistan for the past 10-20 years. Facts are contrary.

What stopped Pakistan’s research into high grade seeds was the overwhelming influence of Monsanto in Pakistan’s corridors of power. Back then, Jehanghir Tareen was advisor to Chief Minister Punjab, advocating Monsanto cotton. In a letter by Dr Zafar Altaf, the Monsanto intervention was blocked, but Federal Agriculture Minister Nazar Muhammad Gondal and Federal Secretary Agriculture continued to pursue it by discouraging Pakistani research. Monsanto BT gene was an insurance against one pest while the hybrids produced by Pakistan had three gene structures and were more resistant. Monsanto was an 11-month crop while the Pakistani hybrid was a 110-day crop and could be grown three times in a year. Americans were alarmed and sent cotton scientists to map NARC activities where the seeds were developed. This eventually led to some economic activities that sent shivers in the Pakistani cotton industry. Dr Zafar Altaf was asked to leave NARC/PARC. By 2013, he was declared an outlaw. Cotton Research in NARC/PARC was closed, Dr Zar Quraish, the scientist who developed these, retired. All serums were destroyed at the Cotton Research Institute Multan to create an open field for Monsanto.

The bottom line is that there was ground-breaking research and excellent cotton production in Sindh and the Barani areas of Punjab. Unfortunately, seed production was stopped and South Punjab became a sugarcane area. Influential and powerful lobbies within power corridors made sure that Pakistani seed production that would have revolutionised cotton production was shut down. The same fate was also met by Pakistan’s Canola Project, ditched in 1996. Now we depend on Monsanto seeds to grow Canola in Pakistan.

The purpose of linking virology and agriculture is to underline the fact that excellent research in Pakistan can result in zero results when confronted with powerful lobbies and elites within the system. Every Pakistani must be on guard and back the three universities working on COVID-19. Or else the results will be no different from cotton and canola.

Unlike the past, when Pakistan’s excellent research in biotechnology was jettisoned, ‘Pakistan First’ must become the cardinal motivation for delivering results.

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