1057 GMT September 22, 2020
Genetic engineering will help find the solution to overcome and contain the coronavirus spread, said the deputy head of the Iranian Genetics Society (IGS).
In December 2019, a pneumonia outbreak was reported in Wuhan, China. On December 31, 2019, the outbreak was traced to a novel strain of coronavirus – a group of viruses that cause diseases in mammals and birds and mild, severe and, at times, lethal respiratory tract infections in humans.
According to the latest statistics, the outbreak has infected over 109,000 people worldwide, killing more than 3,800. In Iran, the number of the infected stands at over 6,500 with more than 190 deaths reported.
Speaking in an exclusive interview with Iran Daily, Dr. Mokhtar Jalali, who holds a PhD in genetic engineering and biotechnology, added the genetic engineering proposes different solutions for stopping the coronavirus outbreak, among which production of a vaccine is the quickest and most effective way.
He expressed hope that the process of developing a coronavirus vaccine and its mass distribution would take about four to five months.
Jalali said that naturally, a coronavirus vaccine and drug will eventually be produced as, at present, a large number of research teams across the world are working toward the goal.
In Iran also, many universities as well as research centers and academic institutes affiliated to the Ministry of Health and Medical Education are analyzing the coronavirus’ genome data to figure out a way to fight it.
“Despite the widespread efforts across the world, it is almost impossible to develop a vaccine for the virus in the short term as going through the stages involved in this process, such as the clinical ones pertaining to the testing of the vaccine on animals and people, is a time taking undertaking.”
The structure of coronaviruses has an RNA genome, he said, adding COVID-19 is a mutant virus that spreads and infects people at a much faster pace compared to the other members of its family.
Analyses and studies show that animals, particularly bats, have played an effective role in the transmission of the coronavirus to humans, Jalali stressed, regretting that failure to observe personal and public hygiene has helped it spread globally.
The IGS’ deputy head added due to their rapid pace of replication and large population, viruses naturally undergo many genetic changes, thus developing resistance to drugs and becoming more pathogenic.
These rapid genetic changes naturally increase the difficulty of fighting viruses and make it impossible to produce a single vaccine for them, he said, stressing that a specific vaccine is required to be developed and produced for each virus separately.
Denying rumors about the virus, Jalali added that coronavirus cannot be a biological weapon produced in labs as “we see that it has infected people in a large number of countries and is not specific to a single race.”
He said that although the epidemic broke out in China, it has spread to a large number of countries.
One hundred and one countries and regions have reported confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Sunday morning, World Health Organization (WHO) spokesperson Fadela Chaib told Xinhua.
Genetic changes in viruses occur naturally resulting in the formation of different types each displaying diverse characteristics, Jalali said.
“For centuries, humans have fought viruses and microbes. Undoubtedly, in the future, we should expect to see new viruses emerge. However, what is important is to remain prepared for preventing and curbing their spread.”
Commenting on the previous viral epidemics, he said compared to coronavirus (3.4 percent), Ebola – a viral hemorrhagic fever – had a higher fatality rate – up to 90 percent; however, its spread was contained, preventing further human casualties.
“When a new virus is detected, what’s important is to control it at the center of the outbreak. Nevertheless, the problem making it difficult to contain coronavirus, is its rapid pace of spreading. In recent years, humans have never detected such a virus.”
Jalali said in addition to causing high human casualties, the coronavirus epidemic has done a great deal of harm to the global economy.
He noted that the time by which the disease would be eradicated or contained depends on the extent to which people observe personal and public hygiene, saying, however, the WHO has predicted that the spread of the virus continues to widen in Iran by late March, only beginning to reflect a downward trend as of this date until late May.
Commenting on the measures by the IGS to curb the coronavirus spread, he said they have been mainly focused on raising public awareness.
“Nevertheless, each and every member of the society are following up the issue.”
Commenting on the genetic structure of viruses, Jalali said it is comprised of two parts: 1. Genome and 2. Capsid (the protein shell of a virus).
“The capsids of some viruses are very similar to each other. By the time a virus’ outer protein coating is not formed, it will not be able to replicate and its spread can be prevented.”
He said in addition to producing a vaccine, the genetic engineering has developed other techniques for fighting a virus, such as CRISPR-Cas.
CRISPR-Cas provides sequence-specific adaptive immunity and fundamentally affects our understanding of virus–host interaction. CRISPR-based immunity acts by integrating short virus sequences in the cell's CRISPR locus, allowing the cell to remember, recognize and clear infections.