7 PM | Looking beyond just diagnosis and quarantine| 30th March 2020

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Context: Research and Development to handle viral onslaughts.

A pandemic is upon the world. Ebola, Zika, Nipah, SARS, MERS, H1N1 and now COVID-19, the viral onslaughts will continue. Mutations of known viruses will periodically cause havoc. Thus, there is need in India for a rapid response research and development team to handle viral onslaughts.

This brings us to the questions of Research and Development on viral onslaught prevention and control. In this article, we will explain the below:

  • What is the need of Research and Development?
  • What can be done to contain COVID-19?
  • What is RNA?
  • What is DNA?
  • What is the difference between RNA and DNA?
  • What is DNA sequencing?
  • Conclusion

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What is the need for Research and Development?

  • Given the population density and unsatisfactory hygiene conditions and awareness in India, the citizens can face a serious situation even though the disease may have originated elsewhere.
  • As per World Health Organization protocols, in India the options are always limited to diagnosis and seems to be the exclusive domain of the National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune
  • Although prevention is the best option, but there are always leakages. So, India needs to put a team together to respond much more than just diagnosis and quarantine.

What can be done to contain COVID-19?

  • Sequencing: The first requirement is to sequence the genome of all the isolates from infected patients in India.
    • COVID-19 is an RNA virus. This would require conversion to DNA and then the sequence of the alphabets (ATGC) to be worked out.
    • COVID-19 is less than 30kb (30,000) alphabets in size and can be sequenced in 24 hours in India.
    • The virus is evolving rapidly and the mutations seen in the virus isolates in the United States are different from those in China.
    • Though such variations may be due to sequencing error.
    • In any case, it is important to sequence the virus isolates in at least three different institutions in India to ensure that sequencing errors are eliminated.
    • Since, knowledge of genome sequence is essential to design drugs and vaccines.
  • Repurpose known drugs: It means, a drug development strategy predicated on the reuse of existing licensed drugs for new medical indications.
    • For example, in case of COVID-19, anti-HIV drugs are being evaluated.
    • Anti-malarial drug, hydroxychloroquine, is suggested as an adjunct drug option since it can make the acidic endosome compartment in which the virus replicates alkaline to prevent the process.
    • Passive Immunization: It is done with plasma-derived from convalescing patients, who have completely recovered.
    • Cloning B cells: Another strategy can be to clone B cells from recovered patients to make therapeutic antibodies.
  • A long-term approach could be to clone the genome, make recombinant antigens and then test for vaccine potential and new drug design.

What is RNA?

  • Ribonucleic acid (RNA) is an important biological macromolecule that is present in all biological cells.
  • It is principally involved in the synthesis of proteins, carrying the messenger instructions from DNA, which itself contains the genetic instructions required for the development and maintenance of life.
  • In some viruses, RNA, rather than DNA, carries genetic information. For example, COVID-19 is an RNA virus.
  • Different types of RNA exist in the cell: messenger RNA (mRNA), ribosomal RNA (rRNA), and transfer RNA (tRNA).
  • RNA also plays an important role in regulating cellular processes from cell division, differentiation and growth to cell aging and death.

What is DNA?

  • Deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, is a molecule that contains the instructions an organism needs to develop, live and reproduce. These instructions are found inside every cell and are passed down from parents to their children.
  • DNA is made up of molecules called nucleotides. Each nucleotide contains a phosphate group, a sugar group and a nitrogen base.
  • The four types of nitrogen bases are adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G) and cytosine (C).
  • The order of these bases is what determines DNA’s instructions, or genetic code. Human DNA has around 3 billion bases, and more than 99 per cent of those bases are the same in all people, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM).
  • DNA was first observed by a German biochemist named Frederich Miescher in 1869.
  • Watson, Crick and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1962 “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.”

What is the difference between RNA and DNA?

  • There are two distinct types of nucleic acid: DNA and RNA. The nucleic acid of DNA is deoxyribose, whereas the nucleic acid of RNA is ribose.
  • As demonstrated by their names, the deoxyribose of DNA lacks one oxygen molecule as compared to the ribose sugar of RNA.
  • The nucleotides that comprise DNA include adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C) and thymine (T), whereas RNA nucleotides include A, G, C and uracil (U).
  • While the structure of DNA is a double-helix in eukaryotic cells, RNA is typically single-stranded and comes in various forms. The single-stranded structure of RNA allows this molecule to fold back on itself and form various stable secondary structures as necessary.

What is DNA sequencing?

  • DNA sequencing is technology that allows researchers to determine the order of bases in a DNA sequence. The technology can be used to determine the order of bases in genes, chromosomes, or an entire genome.
  • Sequencing DNA means determining the order of the four chemical building blocks – called “bases” – that make up the DNA molecule.
  • The sequence tells scientists the kind of genetic information that is carried in a particular DNA segment. For example, scientists can use sequence information to determine which stretches of DNA contain genes and which stretches carry regulatory instructions, turning genes on or off.
  • In addition, sequence data can highlight changes in a gene that may cause disease.
  • The human genome contains about 3 billion base pairs that spell out the instructions for making and maintaining a human being.


India has the capability and expertise with a number of institutes such as,

  • clinical virology (NIV, Pune; Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, Faridabad, Haryana),
  • molecular virology (Regional Centre for Biotechnology, Faridabad; the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru),
  • scale-up of vaccine production (Serum Institute of India, Pune; Gennova, Pune; Bharat Biotech, Hyderabad),
  • clinical trial and drugs (Sun Pharma, Ahmednagar, Maharashtra; Reddy Labs, Hyderabad; Drug Controller General of India),
  • DNA/RNA sequencing expertise (National Institute of Biomedical Genomics, Kalyani; Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad; Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, New Delhi).

At this point of time, it is required to make use of the expertise built in the country over the years to scientifically respond to such challenges in terms of therapeutic options.

Source: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/looking-beyond-just-diagnosis-and-quarantine/article31200890.ece


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