Battling virus contagions from the labs and in society

Wednesday May 06th, 2020
By Rozana Sani

Continuous research and a consistent budget need to be put in place to address both zoonotic and non-zoonotic viruses that have emerged in Malaysia.

The latest in the list is Covid-19, a zoonotic disease that was first reported in Wuhan, China.

According to Academy of Sciences Malaysia fellow Professor Dr Ahmad Ismail the budget for such a research should cover capacity building, technical skills and adequate facilities.

"Several of these viruses have resulted in significant morbidity and mortality to those affected and they have imposed a tremendous public health and economic burden on the state. Since some viruses are related to wild animals, integrated approaches need to be carried out. This is important to avoid conflict in managing wildlife, plague and panic."

Ahmad, who is also a lecturer at the Biology Department at Universiti Putra Malaysia's (UPM) Faculty of Sciences, said scientific research was not something ad hoc and it should be well planned.

"We have experience with the Nipah virus outbreak in Malaysia (September 1998 to May 1999) that resulted in 265 cases of acute encephalitis with 108 deaths, and near collapse of the billion-dollar pig-farming industry.

"In fact, we already have the Institute for Medical Research (IMR) that was established for research related to diseases. Since 1900, research on viruses were carried out at IMR from rabies, small fox, chikungunya, dengue, HFMD (hand, foot and mouth disease) and Influenza A (H1N1) pandemic and others," he said.

Besides IMR, Ahmad said Malaysia had other agencies that work on medical virology, including those at Universiti Malaya, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Universiti Sains Malaysia and Universiti Malaysia Sarawak.

"Research in universities can be sustained because they involve teaching and research and international networking. We need to identify talent and experts on both zoonotic and non-zoonotic viruses in the university.

"Maybe UPM, for example, with its long established veterinary school can focus on zoonotic virus. Surely UPM has international networking on zoonotic diseases including viruses. A special laboratory needs to be established," he suggested.

He said society, too, needed to seriously play its role in fighting virus contagions, particularly in curbing the spread of Covid-19 right now.

"Some people go through science education, but they do not practise it in their daily life. That's why we still have simple problems that are still unsolved, such as managing solid waste, water pollution, air pollution, polluting our own environment and destroying our natural heritage."

He stated that if Malaysians could think scientifically about what a virus is and how it spreads, they would be able to understand easily and take actions quickly, such as distance themselves from others without the need for the involvement of enforcement agencies during the Movement Control Order (MCO).

"The socioeconomic impact of Covid-19 can be tremendous not only at local level, but also internationally. After more than a month of MCO, the public should be able to think scientifically why we need to stay at home and help to solve the problems."