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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - RIYADH: Saudi health chiefs on Tuesday announced funding for a major scientific initiative aimed at helping find a vaccine for the killer coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
A team of 33 top Saudi scientists and researchers has been assembled for the new Ministry of Health program to look into the genetics behind the virus and take part in global efforts to develop a cure.
The medical experts will study and run tests on the nature of the virus and put forward proposals for original projects offering solutions to the challenges faced by the Kingdom and the world in tackling the deadly outbreak.
A collaborative group of Saudi scientists from various universities had already met to discuss and draw up a plan for fighting COVID-19 prior to the first case being reported in the Kingdom and before the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared it a pandemic.
Members of the group include a number of notable scientists from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), namely Prof. Arnab Pain, who is leading the pathogen genomics part of the work, Dr. Fathia Ben Rached, Dr. Amit Subudhi, Sara Mfarrej, and Dr. Qingtian Guan.
They have been joined by doctors Asim Khogeer, Fadwa Alofi, Afrah Al-Somali, and Khaled Al-Quthami from the Ministry of Health, doctors Naif Al-Montashiri and Ahmed Bakur from Taibah University, and experts from King Abdul Aziz University such as Dr. Anwar Hashem and Dr. Turki Abujamel.
“Each member of this collaborative group is driving a major project that is based on employing largescale genome sequencing of COVID-19-positive individuals in order to investigate the genomes of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus strain that causes COVID-19) viruses circulating in Saudi Arabia,” said Dr. Sharif Hala, a biomedical researcher at the National Guard Health Affairs’ King Abdullah International Medical Research Center (KAIMRC).
“The initial project to build genome comparison in the global context of the virus and the host, is what we call a system biology study supported by employing bioinformatic analysis of the datasets and wet laboratory work.”
He told Arab News that 600 samples had already been collected from the cities of Madinah, Jeddah and Makkah to initially focus on specific projects.
These were to optimize nucleic acid-based (genetic material) technologies for early detection of the virus in body fluids, to benchmark existing detection technologies and develop visualization tools to understand the pandemic from a genetics perspective, and to look at identifying mutations in the host that may result in the immune response observed in various cases.
On finding a cure for COVID-19, Hala said: “Vaccines are not hard to develop as it is fundamentally part of the pathogen (in this case SARS-CoV-2) that is introduced to the host immune system to promote antibodies production and eventually educate the immune system to protect the host against this specific pathogen.”
He pointed out that the delay in producing vaccines could be down to a lack of finance, production scale, safety or other issues. Each vaccine had to be tested on a number of subjects to determine its efficiency rate, which could be a lengthy process, he added.
“Currently, our collaborative group has developed a genetic barcode of the global population of the SARS-CoV-2 viruses by systematically tracking mutations in their genetic material over time since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“We have also sequenced more than 60 viruses that we will be announcing very soon to aid in the fight against this COVID-19 pandemic,” said Hala.
Dr. Fatima Al-Hamlan, an assistant professor at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center’s department of infection and immunity, in Riyadh, who is also participating in the health ministry program, said: “As we are faced with a very contagious virus, so many questions need to be answered to unravel the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2.
“Hence, we aim in our study to understand the viral dynamics and transmission in symptomatic and asymptomatic patients. Understanding such factors will help healthcare officials to combat the infection and save lives.”
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