QBRI scientists have been working relentlessly to aid coronavirus testing and ensure return to normalcy
As the outbreak of COVID-19 began to spread like wildfire and the world was catapulted into a state of emergency, scientists at Qatar Biomedical Research Institute immediately mobilized their resources to help fight the pandemic.
With state-of-the-art laboratories and equipment, teams at Qatar Biomedical Research Institute (QBRI) quickly began evaluating the tools and machinery that could be of use in nationwide testing and diagnostics, collaborating with Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC).
QBRI – a research entity under Qatar Foundation’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University – effectively created a threefold plan of action to aid national authorities in the COVID-19 crisis: first, the availability of reagents should they run out; second, additional equipment for testing; and third, human capacity.
We realized that this was an emergency and that we needed to take action and do something that made an impact
Being a research-focused facility, the leadership at QBRI recognized that while long-term research will help understand the virus better, kicking off operations to help with testing and diagnostics take priority. “We realized that this was an emergency and that we needed to take action and do something that made an impact,” Dr. Fares Al-Ejeh, Senior Scientist at QBRI said.
With their primary objective being to increase capacity for testing, QBRI ordered and received reagents that would allow them to run 2000-8000 tests a day. They also developed an in-house RT-PCR assay for COVID-19 testing, which was eventually validated at QBRI in collaboration with HMC. The assay demonstrated high specificity and sensitivity, deeming it quite robust.
“We essentially replicated how the test is done clinically, but also aimed to make it work faster by reducing the amount of reagents needed, and developing a more sensitive method of testing,” Dr. Al-Ejeh said.
During a national crisis like this one, it’s essential to shift our priorities and support national authorities in any way that we can
Next, QBRI transported a robotic platform to HMC to automate the extraction of the coronavirus genome and three of their RT-PCR machines to help expedite the final stage of testing for the coronavirus. QBRI also made an agreement with HMC to have QBRI’s researchers physically joining the new COVID testing laboratory at the Hamad General Hospital (HGH). QBRI researchers continue to work at the HGH-HMC in shifts to support the operation of the new COVID testing laboratory.
“Nobody was expecting the kind of numbers we saw, and we had resources we could contribute, so we immediately identified them and ensured we could collaborate with HMC. Within a week or so, we transported machinery that would be useful to HMC for testing. During a national crisis like this one, it’s essential to shift our priorities and support national authorities in any way that we can,” Dr. Omar El-Agnaf, Executive Director of QBRI said.
We need to think about capacity building should the virus return for a second wave
“We had these machines in our laboratories already, as they are regularly used in our ongoing research for cancer, diabetes, etc. We are one hundred percent committed to contributing to this nationwide challenge, which is what we continue to do,” Dr. Al-Ejeh said.
While the focus has primarily remained on testing for COVID-19 worldwide, QBRI is thinking a few steps ahead and is also directing efforts towards understanding the population’s immunity to the novel coronavirus – to ensure people’s return to the workforce and ease the burden on the economy. “We need to think about capacity building should the virus return for a second wave.” Dr. Al-Ejeh said.
Although the pandemic was an unprecedented event that threw a wrench in the works for the entire world, Dr. Al-Ejeh believes it has shed light on the importance of strategic planning and how it can help respond to future outbreaks in a much more efficient manner.
To plan for future incidences like these, QBRI developed an interdisciplinary program on infectious diseases, initially focusing on coronavirus of course. The program involves screening the community for infection and immunity, understanding how does the novel coronavirus affect people with preexisting conditions like cardiovascular diseases, and what differences they have on different molecular compositions to manage or prevent complications.