Qatar Biomedical Research Institute (QBRI), a research entity under Qatar Foundation (QF)’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University, has been supporting Qatar in the fight against Covid-19.

"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 mobilised their resources to help fight the pandemic," QF said in a statement.

With state-of-the-art laboratories and equipment, teams at 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 effectively created a threefold plan of action to aid national authorities in the Covid-19: first, the availability of reagents should they run out; second, additional equipment for testing; and third, human capacity.

Being a research-focused facility, the leadership at QBRI recognised that while long-term research will help understand the virus better, kicking off operations to help with testing and diagnostics takes priority. “We realised this was an emergency and that we needed to take action and do something that made an impact,” said Dr Fares al-Ejeh, senior scientist at QBRI.

With their primary objective being to increase capacity for testing, QBRI ordered and received reagents that would allow them to run 2,000-8,000 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.

Dr Fares al-Ejeh, senior scientist at QBRI and Dr Omar El-Agnaf, executive director of QBRI

“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.

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-19 testing laboratory at Hamad General Hospital (HGH). QBRI researchers continue to work at HGH-HMC in shifts to support the operation of the new 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,” said Dr Omar El-Agnaf, executive director of QBRI.

“We had these machines in our laboratories already, as they are regularly used in our ongoing research for cancer, diabetes, etc. We are 100% 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, the statement notes. “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 has developed an interdisciplinary programme on infectious diseases, initially focusing on coronavirus - of course. The programme involves screening the community for infection and immunity, understanding how the novel coronavirus affects people with preexisting conditions like cardiovascular diseases, and what differences they have on different molecular compositions to manage or prevent complications.

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