How Covid-19 exposed the shortcomings of Pakistan’s scientific community

Published: May 14, 2020
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Pakistani rescue personnels check the body temperature of a man during a drill. PHOTO: AFP

What was the global and national scientific response?

Scientists and countless labs across the globe have been working day and night to explore preventive and therapeutic options to combat coronavirus, and its genome was sequenced in a matter of days. Epidemiologists, microbiologists, clinicians, and experts from many other fields were brought together to work out the mode of transmission and to provide public-safety guidelines. With regards to Pakistan, universities tasked their faculties and students with designing innovative solutions to help the government tackle Covid-19. We have witnessed success in the development of testing kits from a couple of universities, and some smart alternatives were presented in the face of  hand sanitiser shortages. Some robotics groups modified and/or designed drones and droids for spraying antivirals in high-risk areas without putting the lives and safety of paramedic staff at risk. While these initiatives are a good step, it is evident that on a national level we simply lack the scientific expertise required to deal with this pandemic.

What should have been done?

There are two aspects to this question, yet the root of the answer lies with the leadership. The aim of this article is not to stir a political debate, nor is it to criticise the government’s actions, nor do I intend to debate the timing and smartness of the lockdown. The simple truth of the matter is that to combat and control a viral spread we need to have a unified national strategy. Some of the main shortcomings on part of the government and administration are: a lack of coordination, downplaying the critical nature of the situation, a hesitation to impose a stricter and more effective lockdown, the establishment of quarantine centres in areas without providing basic facilities, etc.

Coming towards the responsibilities of the scientific community, as a scientist with a fancy degree in the field of biosciences, I believe we have been living inside a bubble for quite a while now. We have been so absorbed in the environment inside of our academic bubble that when we talk to people who do not share our domain, they find it difficult to comprehend our chain of thought. I have been to a few ‘Corona Awareness Seminars’ organised by universities for public awareness. Yet all of these talks, except for the parts discussing sanitation and preventive hygiene, were nothing more than scientific jibber-jabber for a man who does not have a degree in biosciences. To fully understand that SARS CoV2 is a positive-sense single-stranded RNA virus, one should be aware of fundamental concepts of molecular biology, biochemistry and virology. Hence, we as scientists need to learn how to communicate with the masses in simple terms stripped of complicated scientific jargon.

What measures should be taken for better preparedness in the future?

Due to geostrategic and geopolitical reasons, Pakistan has always been a security state. But this global pandemic has exposed our underbellies to the unconventional threats we are facing now and might be facing again in the future. In the first two decades of the 21st century, we as a global community have faced many epidemics i.e. SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika and now Covid-19; and if we observe the recent past we notice that such epidemics have become regular occurrences, especially since the Spanish Flu.

Hence, the need for the establishment of a national network, mechanism, or system for surveillance of bio-threats is imperative. Such a mechanism needs to be provided with adequate resources, especially in light of what happened at Taftan. Such a monitoring setup could be based around a collaborative effort between the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). The NIH should maintain the facilities and resources for diagnostics and testing while the NDMA (and subsequent provincial management Authorities) should establish quarantine setups with desired basic facilities even in remote areas of the country.

What are the bottlenecks for scientific progress in Pakistan?

There are two main bottlenecks when it comes to science in developing countries like Pakistan: a lack of research and development culture, and insufficient patronage from the government. Our scientific community is stuck in a vicious circle. We do not have sufficient resources to invest in innovative products that provide a competitive edge and yield handsome returns. Our national economy is capital driven where any investor, capitalist, or industrialist invests in any particular industry for only two reasons: they have sufficient spare capital to invest, and they have some experience in that particular field. If this investment turns out to be successful, the industrialist prefers paying more attention to business administration instead of focusing on their successor’s education in that particular technical domain. The primary effect of this choice is that we have people holding top floor offices who know how to run a business effectively but are unable to innovate. Unlike some discoveries, innovation does not happen due to mere luck or serendipity but requires hard work and technical know how in the given field. These factors are hindering the transition towards a knowledge-based economy in Pakistan.

The second major bottleneck regarding the scientific development is the lack of appropriate patronage for scientists. Scientific development follows the money, it is the direct correlation of گڑ (jaggery) and مٹھاس (sweetness), as per the Urdu idiom. The golden age of Islamic science during the Abbasids began due to Harun-al Rashid’s patronage of the House of Wisdom, which was later expanded by his son Mamum-al Rashid and subsequent successors. The entire project was rooted in the minuscule act of patronage i.e. hefty rewards for the translation of exotic and unique foreign books and manuscripts into Arabic.

But when I talk about patronage and money I don’t mean an increase in research grants and funding for fancy equipment. Since the establishment of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) under the leadership of Dr Attaur Rahman, the government of Pakistan has been pouring billions of rupees into these accounts. Yet we have not seen any commercially viable product emerging from our universities. In my humble opinion, this patronage must aim to encourage our students to innovate and develop solutions for our local problems. These innovative students must be facilitated to establish businesses based on their solutions. While I am aware of the nationwide incubation programmes and business plan competitions, these facilities lack the desired focus towards science and research-based innovation. Such activities encourage students or other participants to come up with sound profitable business ideas and workable business plans requiring the least amount of investment and initial capital.

Let’s compare product development processes in the sciences (e.g. biosciences regarding Covid-19) with the IT sector. The latter requires a comfortable office, a good quality internet connection, and people who can code, while on the other hand, a bio-scientist needs a fully equipped lab even for the very first steps of experimentation to be performed. This is the key bottleneck which has to be addressed. Due to this challenge, most of the applied research going on in our varsities does not translate into viable commercial products. We need to transform our graduates from job seekers to job creators, who can eventually employ their friends, thus creating employment opportunities for our science graduates while also establishing our biotech industrial base.

Public policy and legislation

Until we can develop our biotech industrial capacity (which is virtually nonexistent at the moment), we need to adopt certain measures that can help us in the short and intermediate term. Although our industrial sector is facing a huge crunch and is struggling to survive, it is not as underdeveloped when compared to other developing countries. With a properly coordinated policy it can be put to good use to address immediate challenges, such as the non-availability of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). As witnessed in this global pandemic, individuals and businesses are working on ventilator designs and spare parts to cope with national medical needs in this hour of crisis. These efforts can be better organised and coordinated by having legislation similar to the US Defence Production Law. In the face of future incidents, based on recommendations by the Surveillance and Monitoring Network (managed by the NIH and NDMA), the Central Command and Control Centre could direct national industries to prepare what is required to remedy the problem.

Overhauling research and academia

Our academia is in a state of decay and disarray, not in terms of the number of graduates produced or degrees awarded but in terms of the quality of education and the skill set the degree holders carry. Since the establishment of the HEC, the government is pouring financial resources into universities and other research institutes across the country in the form of research grants and the funding of fancy equipment. Billions of rupees have been invested in these two areas alone, yet we have not seen any tangible outcome which we can boast of.

With special reference to life sciences, the situation is even bleaker. For instance, Taq Polymerase is one of the most fundamental enzymes used in every single molecular biology lab across the world, and has been commercially produced since the early 1980s. Yet, even after 40 years, we are unable to produce a single unit of this enzyme in Pakistan. We do not produce Insulin, any of the therapeutic hormones, Interferons or antibiotics, etc. One can argue that these are ‘sophisticated bio-therapeutic products and may require a very highly skilled workforce and equipment, but the reality is that we are not even producing low-tech bioproducts (i.e. biofertilisers and polymerase enzymes).

Academics are amassing research publications because these are required for their job security and promotion, while students are building piles of dissertations simply because it is a degree requirement. But all these efforts are not directed towards finding solutions to existing problems. This has to change. The research culture has to evolve and get out of this thesis oriented mindset. We need to encourage our undergraduate and graduate students to innovate and, based on their innovations, to establish businesses. This is the sort of patronage which is vital if we wish to quicken the pace of the transition of our economy into a knowledge-based economy to meet up with the challenges of the 21st century.

As discussed earlier, there are organisations, institutions, and incubation centers that are focusing on entrepreneurship. But we need a specialised entrepreneurship programme that focuses on scientific and technology startups. Naturally, I am not arguing that every biotech or STEM research student should be given a blank cheque. Instead, everyone must be provided with an equal opportunity to compete and secure seed funding, mentoring, and access to high tech equipment and facilities available in the public sector (may it be universities, research centres, or any other government organisation). Even if we select only 10 startups each year and nurture them for the entire year I am confident that within the second year we will have no further need to import low tech bio-products. The successful implementation of such a programme has the potential to produce results similar to that of the establishment of the HEC for higher education in Pakistan. If we truly wish to combat national and global catastrophes like Covid-19 then it is imperative that we start reforming Pakistan’s scientific front.

Muhammad Ibrahim Rashid Sherkoti

Muhammad Ibrahim Rashid Sherkoti

The writer has a Ph.D. in Biosciences from NUST and is the cofounder of TaleemKahani, an academic blogging website. He is interested in topics related to biotechnology, infectious diseases, science and technology, and entrepreneurship. He tweets @MIR_Sherkoti (twitter.com/MIR_Sherkoti).

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.