Central University of Punjab organized a special lecture by Prof. P. Balaram on ‘Chemistry and Biology in the Age of Coronavirus’

Bathinda: The Office of the Dean Research at the Central University of Punjab, Bathinda under the patronage of the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Raghavendra P. Tiwari organized a special lecture on the topic ‘Chemistry and Biology in the Age of Coronavirus’. The esteemed guest speaker of the programme was Prof. P. Balaram, Eminent Biochemist and Former Director, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.


The programme commenced with a welcome address by Prof. Anjana Munshi, Dean Research. While introducing the distinguished guest speaker, she stated that the university feels privileged to host a special lecture by a renowned scientist like Prof. Balaram, who is the recipient of awards such as the Padma Bhushan, the TWAS prize, and the 2021 R. Bruce Merrifield Award by the American Peptide Society.


Prof. Balaram’s lecture was awe-inspiring for the audience who had joined in from across the length and breadth of the country. During the talk, Prof. Balaram reiterated that the burden of the coronavirus is enormous, and has caused many deaths across the world. He asserted a quote by Canadian Physician Sir William Osler which said, “soap and water and common sense, are the best disinfectant”. He shared that the second wave in India was a narrow but intense phase, compared to the first wave which was broad but less intense. This is because the virus has mutated between the first wave and the second.


This was followed by an interesting story that left the audience mesmerized. Prof. P. Balaram spoke about how he set himself to find the discoverer of the coronavirus and looked for the history of its evolution during lockdown last year. His in-depth research had led him to find Dr Dorothy Hamre, a virologist and infectious disease researcher, as the first person to find and isolate a strain of the coronavirus. He read in the National Geographic that the first electron micrograph of the coronavirus was taken by Almeida and Tyrrell. The first picture of the coronavirus emerged in this paper in 1967, but on digging deeper he found an acknowledgment stating that the virus was first discovered by Dorothy Hamre in 1966, a year prior to that. But over the years, her name disappeared from the research literature, which left Prof. Balaram puzzled. He kept his search on and found that she had a productive scientific career of 30 years, and yet retired as a research associate, which was a common phenomenon for women scientists in the west and across the world during that era.


Prof. Balaram emphasized that the research outcomes of the common cold vaccine to treat rhinovirus in the post-second world war era have paved the way for scientists to develop a vaccine for modern coronavirus. He also shared the story of Carlo Urbani, an Italian Physician and Microbiologist, who first identified SARS Cov-1 in 2003 and his early warnings to WHO that resulted in its easy containment, thereby saving numerous lives.


Following this, Prof. Balaram deliberated on the relationship between Chemistry and Biology in the natural ecosystem. He said that Chemistry is everywhere in our surroundings and it forms the basis of language for biological sciences as well as material sciences. He stated that mean particles diameter estimates of SARS coronavirus as per modern electron microscopic technique is 82-94 nm, which is similar to the estimates in June D. Almeida’s paper.


Towards the end, Prof. Balaram left the audience with a thought about the ongoing popular controversial debate to find whether the coronavirus is a natural evolution or laboratory creation. He said he spent a large chunk of his time during the pandemic reading in front of a computer. He left the audience with a wonderful quotation by John le Carre which goes, “Survival is an infinite capacity for suspicion”. The audience found the talk extremely interesting and insightful.


Prof. Raghavendra P. Tiwari, the Vice-Chancellor, in the presidential address stated that human civilization evolved with the chemistry of five elements of nature i.e. Earth, water, fire, air, and space. He expressed his gratitude towards the esteemed guest speaker for enhancing the understanding of the audience on the entangled concepts of Chemistry and Biology in the era of coronavirus, and inspiring young scientists to take science to a higher pedestal for the welfare of human civilization. Towards the end, Prof. R.K. Wusirika, Dean Incharge Academics, gave the formal vote of thanks.


In this programme, Prof. K.R.S. Sambasiva Rao, Vice-Chancellor, Mizoram University, Prof. (Dr.) Gauri Dutt Sharma, Vice-Chancellor, University of Science & Technology, Meghalaya, Prof. S.A. Kori, Vice-Chancellor, Central University of Andhra Pradesh graced the occasion as the special guest. The programme was virtually attended by faculty and students of other educational institutions as well as faculty and students of the Central University of Punjab.