"Amid harsh circumstances, Moroccans have been champions in the fight against COVID-19."
Rabat – The novel coronavirus pandemic has led the world to experience a true-life taste of many Hollywood plots. However, a movie is fiction while COVID-19 is a terrifying fact.
Globally, the pandemic has killed approximately 346,000 people while 5.5 million are now undergoing treatment. Across the world, 2.23 million people have recovered from COVID-19.
The global numbers include some 7,584 people who have contracted the virus in Morocco.
Only a few thousand COVID-19 cases of the North African country are still active. “Few” may appear too optimistic since this number is still high in the eyes of some, but compared to other countries ‒ especially those seen as epicenters of the pandemic ‒ Morocco is doing far better than many.
Morocco World News interviewed one of the country’s leading medical professionals who is actively working in the campaign to fight the pandemic.
Dr. Azeddine Ibrahimi, the director of the BioInova Research Center and the head of Biotechnology Lab at the Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy of Rabat, discussed Morocco’s approach to containing the spread of the pandemic, and how the country’s proactivity is improving scientific research.
Ibrahimi, also a professor of medical biotechnology at University Mohammed V in Rabat, said he is satisfied with the approach Morocco has adopted, saying it “preceded” several countries across the world in taking cautionary actions.
“The approach was very exceptional because it was courageous, taking Moroccan lives as a priority.”
Save Moroccan lives: The ‘priority principle’
The health professional acknowledged that some of the measures Morocco has taken have had damaging consequences for the country’s society and economy, but helped save Moroccan lives.
“I think it was an important principle that works. All decisions made in Morocco are based on this principle,” Ibrahimi emphasized. He referred to the “priority principle,” which places human life above all
Speaking of non-medical actions, the official referenced Morocco’s decisions to close borders and schools to contain the spread of the virus.
“It was something that was really interesting and the results are here to prove that the measures were timely,” the health expert said.
Medical approach is very promising
In addition to the country’s non-medical approach, Ibrahimil highlighted the importance of Morocco’s sovereign decisions and protocols regarding the medical response to protecting the country against the pandemic.
“Morocco courageously decided to use prescriptions and treatments which were promising.”
Ibrahimi referenced therapies used in many countries worldwide as a potential treatment for the virus, including chloroquine and its derivatives.
He said the decisions were fruitful and the results are tangible.
“You need to see all the numbers, taking into account that we only recorded 202 deaths,” Ibrahimi said with pride.
The doctor said the numbers, compared to those in other countries, are “pretty good” as some people inevitably become contaminated due to clusters.
“Only 59 people are in the intensive care unit. There are only 0.05 deaths per 100,000 people in Morocco, compared to 150 deaths per 100,000 people in New York City.”
The measures could not be this effective without the help of citizens, and Ibrahimi thinks “All Moroccans understood that we have to take personal actions to limit the spread of COVID-19.”
The High Commission for Planning (HCP) shared a report earlier this month indicating that one-third of Moroccans (34%) started self-isolating before the government announced a state of health emergency on March 19.
More than half of the Moroccan population, or 54%, started to self-isolate after the lockdown’s entry into force.
Approximately 11% of Moroccans stayed at home, without exception, after the government announced the punishments awaiting for the violators of the state of emergency.
The results indicate that Moroccans take the situation seriously.
Numbers are stable
Ibrahimi said the epidemiological situation in Morocco is stable, given the numbers of infections and deaths.
Providing MWN with his forecasts, the professor explained that it is difficult for the country to reach “number zero” when it comes to the case count.
“But we still have time to get to June 10,” the date when the country is expected to end its lockdown.
It is still unsure whether Morocco will follow through with lifting the lockdown next month. The country extended the confinement for a second time, on May 18, after two months of lockdown.
“We have to flatten the curve, we have already been able to flatten the curve. The Number of deaths is limited. These are excellent numbers,” Ibrahimi said.
The doctor forecasts an increase in the number of cases and acknowledges some of the contaminated people will show no symptoms.
Ending the lockdown will depend on the R0 indicator, which is the reproduction rate.
The R0 represents the average number of people infected by a single person with COVID-19.
Ibrahimi said the R0 was at 3 when Morocco detected its first case in March and quickly decreased to 2.9.
Currently, the R0 in Morocco is 0.9. After the level at the initial outbreak, its high was 2.9.
In order to lift the lockdown in Morocco, the R0 should remain below 1.0 for more than two weeks, and must be less than 0.7 for maximum safety, Moroccan officials have said.
Considerations about lockdown lifting should be accompanied by reassuring measures, such as making sure we have sufficient capacities and available rooms in intensive care units to receive and treat COVID-19 patients, according to officials.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, five regions have recorded the majority of Morocco’s infections. Casablanca-Settat remains the hardest-hit.
The region has more than 32% of the cases, followed by Marrakech-Safi, and Tangier Tetouan-Al Hoceima.
“I think in a lot of regions the numbers are good. Hopefully between the end of May and the beginning of June we’ll have a clear vision, on whether it is a good idea to proceed with the lockdown lift.”
Ibrahimi also believes that the country should lift the lockdown gradually, not all at once.
“We need to do it step by step at the right time” and the shift will require the whole country’s involvement, he outlined.
The health expert, who is a former professor at the Stony Brook University in New York, explained that some of the preventive measures used during lockdown should be adopted even after confinement, including the use of face masks.
Asked about Morocco’s testing capacities, Ibrahimi said the country is adopting several testing methods to detect COVID-19 cases.
Some of the tests are serological tests, which study developed antibodies in the blood against the virus. They also involve studying the real-time polymerase chain reaction, known as real-time PCR, which is the most common test across the world.
Health experts in Morocco, including Ibrahimi, do not trust rapid tests.
The country prefers to use more trustworthy detection methods that verify patient recovery and determine the cause of symptoms in cases of infection.
“We have a lot of tests in Morocco and we do pretty good. We improved in test capabilities and diagnosis.”
The doctor recalled Morocco’s policy in testing people who made contact with possible contaminated patients.
After testing a possible case, health experts invite people who made contact with that person to undergo tests in order to avoid any further spread.
Speaking about testing and the global race to find a vaccine, Ibrahimi emphasized the importance of scientific research.
He recalled the GENOMA project from the Med Biotech Laboratory of Rabat, launched in April with the aim of analysis, collection, and sharing of Moroccan biological data.
Moroccan researchers analyzed more than 3,000 genomes of the COVID-19 virus in an academic initiative to improve the country’s response to the novel pandemic.
The findings are the first of their kind in the world, Morocco’s state media reported earlier this week.
The research is part of the national project that seeks to decipher the genetic code of the virus through the identification of its characteristics.
“We have tools that managed to develop a 3D model of the virus, proteins and spikes.”
Researchers in GENOMA used tools developed with artificial intelligence (AI).
“We were looking at how the pandemic was spread across the world. We took genomes from different countries,” Ibrahimi said, emphasizing his confidence that the world will eventually find a solution.
The country’s researchers involved in the GENOMA project find this method interesting. What was even more interesting, however, was conducting a “sequence” research for genomes of the virus in Morocco.
The researchers are trying to determine if there could be a difference between the virus here in Morocco and in other countries.
“We are seeing fewer and fewer deaths [in Morocco]. Are we dealing with the same virus? Maybe in the MENA region, people are more predisposed to fight the virus. Maybe the virus is seasonal, it might disappear in summer and come back in winter,” he said.
National independence in research is key
Ibrahimi also commented on the international race to find a vaccine for the virus. He said Morocco’s labs are carrying out clinical trials.
“We have been working on hundreds of vaccines. We will have different other vaccines under clinical trials” he vowed.
He explained that scientific research in this situation is key, because the country should find out how it can react to similar situations or in a case of another epidemic.
He explained that the country needs a post COVID-19 strategy to deal with the novel coronavirus on its own.
“Can we do anything by ourselves or wait for other countries to find a solution?”
Ibrahimi emphasized the importance of starting pilot projects at Morocco’s national labs for vaccines to target viruses.
He concluded the interview by thanking all Moroccans for their patience and involvement in the national campaign: “All Moroccans were champions against the pandemic and this harsh period,” Ibrahimi said, suggesting that the country will make progress and “a lot of things will be changed eventually in a good way.”
Professor Azeddine Ibrahimi is Director of the Medical Biotechnolgy Laboratory, the Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy of Rabat, University Mohammed Vth in Rabat