“All negative” for Coronavirus

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Dahlan Iskan Former Minister of State Owned Enterprises

IO – I am absolutely intrigued. How come Coronavirus is not found in Indonesia, while practically all other Asiatic countries already suffer from cases? It’s gone so far that people in other countries sneer that our country has such low medical capability that we cannot even detect the virus. Thus, yesterday morning, 17 February 2020, I went to the Institute of Tropical Diseases of Airlangga University (“ITD Unair”). I know that Unair has the best laboratory for tropical diseases there. I met two virus expert professors, Prof. Dr. Ni Nyoman Tri Puspaningsih and Prof. Dr. Inge Lucida.

Prof. Nyoman is Vice Rector I of Unair, while Prof. Inge is the Director of the tropical disease laboratory. Once Coronavirus became a plague, Unair made intensive contact with Japan. ITD has forged strong ties with Japan from the start, as it was initially established with the country’s help. After having a series of discussions, Unair set the initiative to buy three sets of primers that can be used to detect the presence of Coronavirus – naturally, from Japan. “Therefore, the techniques and equipment used to detect corona in Unair are the same as what they use in Japan,” Prof. Inge said.

The test results were rechecked using equipment belonging to the Ministry of Health, and are confirmed to be negative. Just as a reminder, what Unair bought was not the testing equipment, but the test primer. It’s a powdered liquid used for checking the presence of specific viruses, dried in order to allow for transportation to another country. Unair already has the equipment beforehand – it was part of the aid from Japan, to be specific, from Kobe University. The primer is inserted into the equipment together with the test material. Unair continues to cooperate with the University, which even sent three of its experts to work here.

Unair was really nervous and im come patient when they bought the primer: it would take too long for it to be delivered here through FedEx or our local Express Mail Service. Therefore, Prof. Inge decided to send an ITD staff member to Kobe to pick it up. The staff member went to Osaka, straight to Kobe University, and immediately returned to Surabaya after he picked up the goods. “That’s him over there, the one who went to Japan,” Prof. Inge said as she pointed to a staff member working at ITD. “Quite a few people have already undergone the Coronavirus test in Indonesia, 10 in Surabaya only. They all tested negative,” she said. 

Prof. Inge earned her doctorate from Kobe University. She is a “native” of Unair, so to speak. Her father is a Unair graduate, a famous doctor, while her mother is an apothecarist and fellow graduate. Three of her siblings are also Unair graduates and doctors. The remaining two are not doctors, but are Unair graduates too: an apothecarist and a Bachelor in economics. The latter owns a respected health lab business in Surabaya.

Prof. Nyoman is herself a respectable biochemistry researcher. She discovered an enzyme that helps the production of livestock feed. I invited her to present her discovery to the Ministry of State-Owned Enterprises. She earned her Master’s Degree from the Bandung Institute of Technology, while her Doctorate was from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture. She was also named an “Exemplary National Lecturer” for three years in a row.

Prof. Nyoman was born in Belitung from pure Balinese parentage. They worked at BRI Tanjungpandan at the time. Later on, her father’s career skyrocketed in Jakarta. Everyone at BRI know him: I Wayan Patra, the man behind the agricultural business credit scheme of the 1970’s. Later on, he died from kidney complications, leaving his widow and children to return to their native Bali. Prof. Nyoman ended up finishing her formal education in Denpasar, and being awarded her collegiate education in Unair.

When I visited her office, I noted that she keeps the results of her researches on various strains of virus on her laptop. She explained to me that viruses have “legs” that they use to gain a footing in the bodies that they enter. For humans, they make their footing along human respiratory cells. When these “legs” have obtained firm footing, the virus can spread their illness freely. If they cannot get a footing, the virus cannot produce their toxins. It is the same as a person wanting to excrete feces – if they cannot get a firm footing, the feces will not be extruded properly. Therefore, the structure of the virus must be thoroughly known, as they cannot divide without this correct footing. When the structure is known, we can create a drug that can fool the virus. The drug can generate “footings” that is exactly like what the virus needs – but it’s actually false footings that prevent the virus from extruding its “feces”.

Some of the 10 people checked for Coronavirus at the lab were hospital patients, while others are ordinary people who get themselves tested because they suspect themselves of suffering from Coronavirus. Everyone came out clean. One of these test patients was a doctor who showed symptoms of flu, while their daughter just recently returned from abroad. So, he felt afraid that he might have caught Coronavirus and tested himself in the Unair lab. Like the others, he tested negative and everyone is now doing fine.

The number of compounds obtained from Japan is sufficient to get 100 people checked. The check is also fast: you can get results within the next 5 hours. This is because there is no need to queue for the check: “Anyone can check themselves here,” Prof. Inge said. “If they pay the IDR 1 million testing fees, of course.”.

The two professors are also curious why Indonesians do not get the Coronavirus, and continue to seek answers. However, it is not that they are too confused either. When Saudi Arabia suffered from the MERS virus, Indonesia was also safe, even though many of our citizens go there for hajj pilgrimage. “We tested many hajj pilgrims at the time, but none of our citizens caught the MERS virus,” Prof. Inge said.

“It’s the same when China suffered from SARS virus earlier – nothing doing in Indonesia. We only had many victims during the avian flu epidemic. That’s when Unair triumphantly discovered the drug that can prevent avian flu. True, avian flu virus still exists. We frequently check the chickens being sold in the market, as the virus remains stuck in chicken carcasses. However, nobody else caught avian flu,” Prof. Nyoman said. “We are immune to it now.”

In conclusion, there is no scientific answer yet about this issue that cause a lot of people to become curious. Only humorists can deliver a direct explanation: “The virus cannot enter Indonesia because it’s hard to get entry permits here!”