In mid-January 2020, Associate Professor Dr Aneela Javed and Assistant Professor Dr Ali Zohaib had a Eureka moment.
The two young scientists of the Attaur Rahman School of Applied Biosciences (Asab) at the National University of Sciences and Technology (Nust), Islamabad had been constantly discussing research work to curb the spread of coronavirus, with each other and with the virologists’ community in Pakistan and abroad. With the world in the grip of an unprecedented pandemic and with the number of infected people rising by the hour, Javed and Zohaib put aside their other research activities in the lab to develop an indigenous diagnostic kit to test for Covid-19. The cost of the current coronavirus diagnostic test is reportedly over 8,000 rupees, but this scientist duo says that with the development of their indigenous kit, the test will cost only one-fourth of that price.
“It was the middle of January when we started conceiving the idea and initiated discussion with virologists in Pakistan and abroad,” says Zohaib.
They sent an email to their collaborator abroad for primers (components used to detect the virus) so that they could initiate work on their idea.
“Since then, we have been working on the idea and spent most of our time in the lab,” says Zohaib. “It doesn’t end here,” Dr Aneela pipes in. “We have been in regular discussion over the phone till late night,” she says.
On February 1, they received the first package of components, required to develop the test kit, from their collaborators. Thus began their work.
The indigenously designed diagnostic kit would cost a fraction of internationally purchased kits
“I was desperate to receive a response to my email. I waited the entire day and made several calls to the company’s office,” Zohaib says, recalling his anticipation.
Initially, they discussed their research with Asab principal Dr Hussnain Janjua and got his approval. By February 14, they informed him that they had the capability of developing Covid-19 test kits. With smiles on their faces, the Nust scientists tell Eos that whenever they got discouraged due to various reasons, they turned to Dr Janjua. “He was the person who was always available for us and remained a great source of motivation,” says Javed. “He always facilitated us whenever we sought help in completing our research project.”
Javed and Zohaib also appreciate the contribution of their students, one a PhD student, and another MS degree holder who currently works as a research assistant.
“They are still busy in research work while we are here giving interviews,” says Zohaib. It was not possible for Eos to interview the students as it is against the university’s policies.
“From day one of the outbreak of the coronavirus in China, I asked my colleagues in China and Pakistan whether its a reoccurrence of SARS, which broke out in 2003. The exact words of one of my friends were, “Brother, believe me, this is not SARS, it’s something else,” Zohaib recalls.
“Later, Dr Aneela and I continued discussion over the issue and tried to understand the real problem,” he says.
The scientists claim that the indigenously established Molecular Diagnostic Assays are robust, sensitive to the target and will soon be available in the market at one-fourth the price of imported assays (tests) from China and Germany.
The Nust team has established assays in collaboration with Wuhan Institute of Virology China, DZIF Germany, Columbia University USA and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) Rawalpindi.
After successfully developing the diagnostic kit, they informed the rector’s office at Nust. The rector suggested that a few tests be made on real samples (of coronavirus affected patients) before making an announcement about the development.
AFIP provided facilities as well as samples [patients] for real-time tests on two coronavirus patients. Both the patients were diagnosed positive.
When the scientists shared their findings with the National Institute of Health NIH), they were naturally very happy and appreciated the scientists’ efforts.
Dr Aneela says their kit is just a package of individual components (chemicals), adding that these individual components are supposed to mix in certain quantities at the time of the experiment. Instead of placing them separately, they have been placed in a single package, or kit. Otherwise, there is nothing unusual about the kit.
The most important thing which needs to be ensured while conducting the coronavirus diagnostic test is the use of components in proper quantity, they emphasise. The Covid-19 kit has the capacity to conduct 1,000 tests a day and, the scientists claim, its capacity can be increased to up to 10,000 per day.
“There is nothing new in the chemicals, all the chemicals have been commonly used for research purposes and they are easily available in the local market,” says Dr Zohaib.
It was mainly Pakistan’s lack of economic resources that was the motivating factor behind their initiative of developing the diagnostic kit. “Since the outbreak of the coronavirus in China and other countries, we were concerned that if it spreads in Pakistan, what will our country do as we don’t have enough finances to import kits from abroad,” says Zohaib. “We will have to depend on foreign donations and once foreign donations end, then what will we do?” he adds.
Serving their country and their institute was another motivation. “The realisation that our country has spent a lot of resources on our higher studies and it is the time we can do something for this country in return,” says Zohaib.
According to Dr Javed, many international and national companies have approached the scientists to express interest in the project.
“We are also ready to work with them,” she says. But it is not an easy task. The team is doing everything to choose collaborators who have “enough capabilities to bring the kits in time to the market,” Javed says.
When asked when the kits would be available, Dr Javed does not immediately have a response. “We cannot give a time frame,” she says. “It depends on the company’s capacity which will introduce the product in the market.”
The scientists have a stringent assessment criteria, which has been dispatched to the companies that have approached them.
“We have liaised with NIH to launch it at a mass scale on a commercial basis. We are also planning to involve an external panel of scientists from China, the US and Germany so that we can further validate it,” she adds.
“It’s a national cause and all developments are being done in coordination with NIH,” the scientist says. “NIH [is] the government representative institution dealing with the outbreak at mass level. [The kit is] a combined effort of Nust and NIH.”
“We, as scientists, are very confident that its success rate is 100 percent. Its price is a quarter of the price of the kit imported from abroad,” says Javed.
Principal Janjua says it is the time to translate research, in that whatever research work is being done at the national and international level, its basic purpose is its translational value and how it serves humanity.
“What we developed in our labs, its basic purpose is to develop expertise indigenously, instead of getting support from abroad,” says Janjua.
“It is not necessary that a technology developed in the West can be applied here or be equally effective in our environment,” he says. “We have to make certain optimisations. We have to see those targets of genes or we have to use those primers to amplify which are specific to the target and are specific to our local stance. This is the only solution we have.”
Talking about the culture of research, Zohaib says, he believes the field needs more attention, and adds that the media can play an important role in inculcating the culture of research development. Currently, media coverage in the field of science and technology is nothing, he says.
“It’s common practice in the world that research institutes initiate research work on potential epidemics much before their outbreak but, in Pakistan, we didn’t start research work until certain epidemics were out of control,” Zohaib says.
“Every year, there is a dengue outbreak in our country and we have never thought why it happens,” principal Janjua says. “A basic reason is the lack of screening technologies. NIH is not responsible for dealing with such outbreaks [alone]. It needs support of research institutions and collective efforts,” he adds.
“Our focus this time is to build up our indigenous capabilities, in our own institutions. So if any such virus reoccurs in the future, we can minimise its risk.”
The writer is an investigative journalist based in Islamabad and a PhD aspirant. She tweets @shizrehman
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 29th, 2020