Death of a journalist, and Siddhartha Mukherjee on genes and COVID-19

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Siddhartha Mukherjee and Ken Burns hope “The Gene” will spark a national conversation. Photo: Stephanie Berger/Columbia University

NEW YORK – Surging hope and semblance of solace in the age of the coronavirus comes in what may seem as strange indicators for laymen: New York state registered the largest number of deaths in a single day, on Tuesday, April 7, 2020, from the coronavirus since the crisis began. A staggering number of 731 people died in a day. Yet, there was cautious optimism as the rate of hospitalizations has fallen for several days, and the infections seem to be plateauing.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, while revealing that 5,489 people had died in the state, said he was encouraged by the data on hospitalizations. He, however, cautioned against growing complacent or easing up on social distancing measures that seem to be working, reported The New York Times.

Cuomo said that increases in hospital beds and the number of health care providers who were working had helped New York to balance its patient load and help ensure that no one facility was overburdened.

The governor also said that planning was underway to restart the regional economy and that he had spoken to the governors of New Jersey and Connecticut about coordinating those efforts.

Brahm Kanchibotla. Photo courtesy: Rajender Dichpally.

While the news on the lower number of hospitalizations may be encouraging for many, for families who are either victims or afflicted with the coronavirus, there was only misery, despair and dread to deal with.

A veteran Indian American journalist, Brahm Kanchibotla, from Hicksville, NY, was amongst the thousands who have died from the coronavirus, in New York. He breathed his last on April 6, after a cardiac arrest in a hospital in New York, after being admitted following symptoms of coronavirus. He is survived by his wife Anjana, and two children, son Sudama, and daughter Siujana.

Kanchibotla, who had worked for The Indian Express newspaper in Hyderabad, prior to emigrating to the US, worked also for the United News of India, from New York, and had worked as Content Editor for Merger Markets. He was 66 years old, according to Rajender Dichpally, a community activist.

Dichpally expressed his shock at the passing away of Kanchibotla, who he said was put on a ventilator at the hospital in New York, but didn’t pull through.

“He took his profession very seriously,” said Dichpally. “I remember when the late YSR Reddy had come to New York, in 2002. Kanchibotla wanted to interview him, and I managed to seat him next to YSR as he was having dinner, and Kanchibotla managed to get the interview.”

Dichpally, who is from the Telugu diaspora, said that Kanchibotla also covered several Telugu association meets in the US, annually.

Mohammed Jaffer, the Editor of SnapsIndia, an international news photo service, based also in New Jersey, said that he knew Kanchibotla for the last 30 years, and they both were from the same hometown, Hyderabad.

“I knew him for 30 years. He used to work for Indian Express Hyderabad, and he also used to work with my father there. He was a very humble and down to earth man,” said Jaffer.

SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE’S NEW VENTURE

Indian American oncologist and writer Siddhartha Mukherjee and Ken Burns will present the PBS Premiere of ‘The Gene: An Intimate History’.

The ability to modify genes and prevent disease has exploded in the last decade. It is now possible to use gene therapy to cure inherited disorders, to correct genetic defects and to limit the severity of a disease. But this new era in genomic medicine offers both promise and peril, according to a report by Columbia University, where Mukherjee is on the faculty.

“These revolutionary discoveries highlight the awesome responsibility that we have to make wise decisions, not just for the people alive today, but for generations to come,” said Mukherjee, an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, staff cancer physician and author of ‘The Gene: An Intimate History’.

‘The Gene: An Intimate History’, a four-hour, two-part documentary, will air April 7 and 14 on PBS stations nationwide. The series, like the book, weaves together science, history and stories of individuals and families, including Mukherjee’s account of his own family and its recurring pattern of mental illness.

The Gene airs at a critical moment for the science community, as geneticists around the world grapple with the ethical questions these technologies raise. In Nov. 2018, a Chinese researcher stunned and horrified the scientific community with the announcement that he had created the first genetically edited babies, twin girls born in China.

The documentary had been cut and finished just before the first cases of coronavirus were reported in China, so it was too late to include what would soon become the COVID-19 pandemic, “a global crisis inextricably tied to our genes,” Mukherjee said, reported Columbia University.

“A piece of genetic material—29,000-odd nucleotides of RNA—coated with protein has upended the world,” Mukherjee said. “Virtually every technology we’re using to track and treat COVID-19, even an oral or nasal swab to detect whether you are infected, relies on genetic techniques.”

In an interview to Columbia News, Mukherjee sad that perhaps the “most grotesque example of the misuse of the language of genetics is the Nazi eugenics program in the 1930s. The Nazis distorted the language of genes to imagine creating a genetically superior nation—and then this was used to justify imprisonment and mass extermination.”

Mukherjee was asked that if the concept of being able to order for $200 a profile of his or her genome that provides ancestral information, as well as genetic health risks, was positive or not.

He responded: “The question you have to ask is do we want to live in a world where you can send a sample of saliva and find out that you have a 10 percent or 20 percent risk of developing breast cancer in the next 30 years. This information can be useful, motivating you to adopt more positive health behaviors. But it also marks you, changes you. It can change your relationship with yourself, your body. When you decide to test for future risk you are also, inevitably, asking yourself, what kind of future am I willing to risk?”

Asked if genetics play a role in how vulnerable a person is to contracting COVID-19, and whether that person is more at risk of dying from the illness, he said “this is one of the great mysteries of this infection. Young, healthy people are dying, even if most serious cases occur in the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions.”

Mukherjee added: “There are multiple studies trying to unravel why some people infected with SARS-Cov2, the virus that causes COVID-19, fall seriously ill, while others show only mild or nonexistent symptoms. We are finding a correlation between high viral load—the amount of virus present in any sample taken from a patient—and more severe illness.”

Mukherjee had recently argued in The New Yorker that “we have done a good job measuring the spread of the virus across populations, but it is now time we learn more about how SARS-Cov2 behaves in the body. This requires large-scale efforts to collect the DNA of people and the virus that they are infected with. One example of a study might be taking the DNA of those with serious underlying disease and comparing it to the DNA of those with mild or asymptomatic cases.”

According to him, the medical fraternity need to determine whether genetic variations among humans affect how susceptible individuals are to COVID-19 infections as rapidly as possible.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: sujeet@newsindiatimes.com Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)

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