In an exclusive interview with Voicepk.net, Federal Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry speaks to Munizae Jahangir and expresses his hopes that the government, cabinet & the Prime Minister will adopt scientific means in marking religious holidays. He hopes that this year “sanity will prevail” and that the Ruet-e-Hilal Committee will not bypass the MET office and delay Eid by a day, allowing Pakistan to celebrate this religious day with the rest of the world.
Chaudhry laments the Supreme Court’s order that he says caused mayhem as people threw caution to the air and thronged the markets, ignoring SOPs laid out by the government. He claims the month of June will be a decisive month, as experts predict that Pakistan will touch its peak (of COVID-19 infected cases) during this month.
“The SC remarks gave way to the ordinary citizens to ignore SOPs”
“Within one month we have produced enough disinfectants & sanitizers for Pakistan itself and also for export. Apart from N-95 masks, in Pakistan there is no shortage of PPEs anymore.”
Munizae Jahangir: Federal Minister for Science and Technology, Mr Fawad Chaudhry thank you for joining us on Voicepk.net, our digital media platform. One of the things that have been of great concern to us is that what role has your ministry played in carving out a strategy for this pandemic and how do you intend to be involved moving forward?
Fawad Chaudhry: We have contributed our bit in a very satisfactory manner, I would say. On the 26th of February when the first two cases of COVID-19 surfaced in Pakistan, we were not manufacturing anything to fight the virus in Pakistan. By the 5th of March, Pakistan had a shortage of hand sanitizers. When I checked figures, I realized that Pakistan is the third-largest exporter of ethanol which is the main raw material for these disinfectants. So we initiated a project in PCSIR (Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) and involved defense production and the private sector also joined hands with us. Within one month we were not only able to produce enough disinfectants and sanitizers for Pakistan but we also exported these disinfectants and sanitizers that were made to W.H.O standards.
Likewise China was the only country producing and exporting PPE kits globally. This outbreak of the virus increased demand and put pressure on their industry but they were unable to meet global demands. Doctors and paramedics protested against lack of PPE equipment in New York, France, London, and in Pakistan. In Pakistan we started a project with APTMA and the Ready-made Garments Association.
We set-up laboratories for particle tests. Basically, this required us to put up the fabric and throw particles on it to test if the fabric can resist those particles or not.
Our Ministry facilitated both these bodies in setting-up PPE plants and within two months we were able to send the first gift of PPEs to the USA. Just yesterday we sent PPE as a goodwill gesture to the USA. This usually never happens. We usually receive gifts from the USA so this was a first.
Munizae Jahangir: Unfortunately we have seen doctors protesting about lack of PPEs, not only in Punjab but also in Karachi, Quetta, and Peshawar. The problem is that once you use them you have to discard them, so there will be a shortage of PPE equipment till we don’t find the vaccine. Do you think you will be able to manufacture enough PPEs so that doctors can be protected?
Fawad Chaudhry: In Pakistan there is no shortage of PPEs anymore. What we need now are N-95 masks which are not being made commercially as yet. But we are manufacturing more than enough PPEs. So, on the provincial and federal levels there can be an issue with supply. The NDMA buys the PPE and then distributes it to the provinces and then the provincial government distributes it to the hospitals. In my view, hospitals should be allowed to directly buy PPE kits from manufacturers. There is no need for such a long supply or distribution chain. That is another issue but as far as the availability is concerned, we now have much more than what Pakistan needs.
Munizae Jahangir: One of the statements you recently made was about herd immunity. You very correctly pointed out that there hasn’t been enough research on it. You also said that it is very dangerous now to open-up when herd immunity hasn’t yet been proven to be the correct way forward. I want to understand what was the justification of easing restrictions when we could see cases increasing and your ministry was convinced that herd immunity may not work for Pakistan?
Fawad Chaudhry: We created an expert committee in the Ministry of Science and Technology which is headed by prominent scientists and it involves Pakistan’s top virologists as well. We seek their opinion and then narrate what they have advised with the public. So I am more of a spokesperson for that committee. As far as herd immunity is concerned, we need data to prove that it is an effective method to counter COVID-19. This data isn’t there. The Supreme Court (SC) gave an order or an impression of an order and after that crowds thronged to the malls and markets as though we never had the coronavirus in Pakistan. All caution was thrown to the winds and it was life as usual. However, experts have shared their concern that the peak of COVID-19 has not happened yet in Pakistan.
“The experts are of the opinion that the three weeks of June will determine whether Pakistan can go ahead as normal or do we need more precautions to fight the virus. Because in these three weeks of June the curve of the cases of COVID-19 will peak.”
Frankly, without solid research and strong evidence that such relaxations in lock-downs will not threaten the lives of people, the order should not have been given ( by the Supreme Court). Unfortunately, this has been done. The Prime Minister from day one has been saying that if you want to open-up do so, but do it with some SOPs. But I think after the Supreme Court order everything went hay way and people chose their own way of life.
Munizae Jahangir: What are your concerns as a PTI minister and as someone who is heading the Ministry of Science and Technology? Where do you think we are headed? You said that after the Supreme Court verdict there was no choice but to open-up without taking into account the SOPs set out by your government, you must have some assessment of where things are going to go?
Fawad Chaudhry: We are very concerned about the situation. All the researchers, scientists, and virologists are very confused about the way things are now happening in Pakistan. SOPs during the lockdown was first violated by religious clergy in the mosques and then in the Majalis. This was followed by traders violating the SOP’s and behaving in the same manner as the mullahs. We now see people returning back to normal life, without following SOPs. So we will have to wait till June to see how this will truly affect us.
“A research publication by H.E.J (University of Karachi) proves that the virus in Pakistan is the same as in Wuhan.”
Munizae Jahangir: You are a lawyer and have been part of the law community for a very long time. Do you think this order can be reviewed?
Fawad Chaudhry: The Supreme Court reviewed its order the very next day and has clarified many of the impressions that were created of the SC earlier order but frankly, we need to first admit to ourselves that we are not programmed for social distancing. Humans are social animals. We depend on each other and our whole life is connected to one other. It is very difficult for us to maintain that kind of lifestyle where we have to keep a social distance. The problem is that this enforcement of SOPs goes completely against the way we are programmed as humans. But the SC remarks gave way to the ordinary citizen to ignore those SOPs laid out by the government and start a normal life, as though coronavirus never hit. The SC order has either been misinterpreted or how the media carried it or the judge’s remarks, whatever the reason may be, the fact is that after the order the affectivity of the SOPs, enforcement of these SOPs by the government has gone haywire.
Munizae Jahangir: You gave a statement that we will have to live with COVID-19 till next year, 2021 as far as perhaps October or November. Given that you head the Ministry of Science and Technology, how will you help people in coping and fighting this pandemic for another year at least.
Fawad Chaudhry: Again, my statement is based on the analysis of the five biggest pharma companies in the world. These are companies that have the most capacity in terms of producing vaccines. Companies like Johnson and Johnson, Roche, Novartis, and Evonik all claim that before September 2021 they won’t have a vaccine in mass production. This means that the world will have to live with COVID-19 for a year and a half at least.
Munizae Jahangir: The question really is that eight billion will need this vaccine. In Pakistan we don’t make medicines. We are not known for making medicines. Eventually this vaccine has to get to everybody. A distribution route needs to be thought out. What is the government planning for distribution?
Fawad Chaudhry: As far as the vaccine is concerned many countries like Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and many countries in Africa already have a very detailed network of distributing vaccines but the question is of availability. For example, you see the polio workers go to every nook and corner to innoculate children. Immunization of children has been a long-running program in our country like many others, so distribution is not an issue. The problem again lies with the availability and it is not going to be available before September 2021. People need to change their lifestyles until then. Go more digital, which we are doing. If the USA and China would not have been in that trade war and the USA would have allowed for Huawei, 5G technology to function, we would have been in a super digital era by now.
Munizae Jahangir: You also made a statement that the strain that is running through Pakistan right now came from Wuhan. That is a very interesting statement you made. What evidence is there to support this claim?
Fawad Chaudhry: We are working on 100 viruses structure study and it is going on in five universities. The first research publication has been published by the Husein Ebrahim Jamal (H.E.J) Research Institute of Chemistry, University of Karachi. They did a genome study of five different virus strains and they have come to the conclusion that the virus in Pakistan is the same as that in Wuhan. We are bringing another 95 samples to Pakistan to study them further.
Munizae Jahangir: You also said that the origin came from a bat. Right now the world is asking very tough questions from China. Once the world has stopped firefighting this pandemic China will have to answer these questions. Do you think there should be an independent inquiry once the pandemic is over to investigate what really happened in Wuhan?
Fawad Chaudhry: This is more about international politics and the cold war between China and the United States of America. But the fact of the matter is that all the scientists and independent magazines point to the fact that this virus is a natural phenomenon. This research points to the fact that the virus is transferred from mammal-like bats to humans and this happened naturally. This happens very often. But yes, there needs to be further investigation on why so many viruses have appeared from China. Is it because of the wet markets or eating habits? This requires detailed research but the rest of this has been political.
Munizae Jahangir: You have never been shy of making political statements. Since we have such a special and friendly relationship with China, do you think Pakistan is in a position to ask them about what went on in Wuhan?
Fawad Chaudhry: We don’t need to play politics on hard science. Scientists are working on this question and have fairly concluded that this is a natural phenomenon.
Munizae Jahangir: Eid is here. Has there been a decision on when Eid will be celebrated across Pakistan or is there no consensus yet?
Fawad Chaudhry: We have already given our calendar that Eid will be celebrated on 24th May. Interestingly, for the first time the entire Muslim world will be celebrating Eid on the same date, be it Bangladesh or Turkey, Indonesia or Malaysia, Brunei, or any other country in the world. We have already given the date but if the Ruhet-e-Hilal Committee, the committee with the elderly ulemas and mullahs created by the Religious Affairs Ministry if they bypass the MET office and delay Eid by a day then Pakistan will be the only Islamic country celebrating Eid on a different day. I hope sanity prevails. I hope the government, cabinet, and Prime Minister office will come to the conclusion that we have to adopt scientific means and not a backward approach.
Munizae Jahangir: The sugar cartel report is now out and is available for the public. The report lays very serious blame on Jahangir Khan Tareen who is a very eminent leader of the PTI.
Indirectly PTI and the Prime Minister both benefited from Jahangir Khan Tareen. Now there are very serious accusations against him regarding this report. The question really is where does the buck stop? Now there are also questions being raised about the judgment of the Prime Minister and the kind of people he has close to him leading the party and if he has been wrong about his judgment in the past?
Jahangir Khan Tareen is one of the most fair businessmen in Pakistan. People contribute to parties and it is the party that has benefitted from someone, not the PM.”
Fawad Chaudhry: It is not about the people it is about the systems. Industry capture is just not unique to Pakistan. It is the same for other industries as well. If you look at the car manufacturers or probe the cement or textile industry you will reach the same conclusion as you did for the Sugar Mill Association cases. I have no doubts about the allegations leveled about some of the mills in the report and also the systems exposed by this report. As far as Jahangir Khan Tareen is concerned, I think he is one of the fairest businessmen in Pakistan. He has always acted fairly and he has certainly been very important in PTI. I hope he is able to come out of these allegations leveled against him. As far as the Prime Minister is concerned, why would he order the inquiry if he was involved?
Munizae Jahangir: But the Prime Minister benefited from him and his resources. If there is to be accountability then shouldn’t there be accountability beyond that? Then the question also is where does the buck stop?
Fawad Chaudhry: People contribute to parties and it is the party that has benefited from someone and not the Prime Minister. All over the world people give donations to political parties on the basis of a cause and that happens in Pakistan as well. If there is a personal liability then why should the party be answerable? If someone comes to me and gives me a donation for a hospital in my district I won’t go and check their accounts. That is the job of the Federal Board of Revenue and other such institutions.
Munizae Jahangir: Will the ruling party ask for the resignation of ministers involved in this probe, including those ministers from your coalition parties?
“There will be FIA inquiries against all accused ministers. If there are criminal liabilities ministers accused will have to suffer consequences”
Fawad Chaudhry: Frankly, all those who have liabilities will have to go through FIA inquiries. If there are criminal liabilities they will have to suffer consequences accordingly. This has happened before as well. Mr. Babar Awan was a minister and he had to resign. Mr. Aleem Khan also resigned. Sibtain Khan was a minister and he had to resign as well, he also went to jail and acquired bail to come out. If there is anything they will have to answer the courts.