Top Saudi research team gets government funding to help find COVID-19 vaccine

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Updated 15 April 2020

Top Saudi research team gets government funding to help find COVID-19 vaccine

  • A group of Saudi scientists met to draw up a plan for fighting COVID-19

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.”

 


Saudi TikTok users weigh in on potential app ban

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Updated 12 July 2020

Saudi TikTok users weigh in on potential app ban

  • Due to pandemic, interest in the app skyrocketed as many users watch videos and try to recreate them while in quarantine

RIYADH: Chinese video platform TikTok is under fire once again, as rumors of the app being a tool used by the Chinese government to spy on users resurface online.

TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, is a video-sharing site similar to the now-defunct Vine, where users share short clips of themselves which can be altered using AI technology.
Lip-syncing along with a track, using filters, and adding special effects give users the chance to create short clips that can be shared and downloaded in several social media platforms.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, interest in the app skyrocketed as many users downloaded TikTok to watch videos and try to recreate them while in quarantine. The app has also gained significant popularity in the Middle East with influencers such as Saudi model Roz, UAE-based content creators Khalid and Salama, and Saudi top TikToker iimeeto, who recently celebrated reaching four million followers on the platform.
Rania Mohammed, a fourth year medical student at Dar AlUloom University in Riyadh, said that TikTok was “the only thing keeping her sane” as she struggled with the pressures of school and quarantine.
“As a med school student, my attention span and free time are both severely limited,” she told Arab News. “Taking a 15 minute break to watch silly TikToks has helped me keep motivated. The specific brand of humor on that app is the fastest way to make me laugh.”
Mai Alhumood, a government employee, said that she downloaded the app while she was bored and became “quickly addicted” to the platform’s fun short videos.
“People are so creative on TikTok, and the challenges that keep going viral are so interesting,” she told Arab News.
However, the app has long-suffered from accusations of spying and gathering users’ private information on behalf of the Chinese government, leading to both temporary and permanent bans in countries around the world.
Recently, it was reported that Amazon requested that employees remove the app from their smartphones in an email over “security risks.” The company later retracted its directive.
Saudi cybersecurity expert Abdullah Al-Jaber believed that concerns over the security of TikTok’s collected data stemmed from the app’s country of origin and its rules and regulations.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Following a provisional ban in April 2019, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology banned TikTok permanently in June this year, along with 58 other Chinese apps. The ministry claimed that the apps were a ‘threat to the sovereignty and security of the country’ following a Himalayan border clash with Chinese troops in the disputed territory of Ladakh.

• Indonesia temporarily blocked TikTok in July 2018, citing public concern regarding ‘illegal content’ such as pornography and blasphemy. However, the app was unblocked following various changes from TikTok such as the opening of a government liaison office and implementing security mechanisms.

• Recently, the US became the third country to seriously consider banning the app, according to information from President Donald Trump’s administration. Trump also weighed in on a potential TikTok ban. He said that banning the app would be ‘punishing China for its response to the coronavirus.’

“TikTok collects data in a very similar way to US applications,” he told Arab News. “However the main concern is that the US has regulations and compliance that must be met when collecting customer data, such as GDPR data privacy regulation. In the case of TikTok, we don’t know as much about how the data is being used or stored because we don’t know their regulations.”
Following a provisional ban in April 2019, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology banned TikTok permanently in June this year, along with 58 other Chinese apps. The ministry claimed that the apps were a “threat to the sovereignty and security of the country” following a Himalayan border clash with Chinese troops in the disputed territory of Ladakh.
Indonesia temporarily blocked TikTok in July 2018, citing public concern regarding “illegal content” such as pornography and blasphemy. However, the app was unblocked following various changes from TikTok such as the opening of a government liaison office and implementing security mechanisms.
Recently, the US became the third country to seriously consider banning the app, according to information from President Donald Trump’s administration.
Trump also weighed in on a potential TikTok ban. In an interview with Gray Television, Trump said that banning the app would be “punishing China for its response to the coronavirus.”
“Look, what happened with China with this virus, what they’ve done to this country and to the entire world is disgraceful,” he said.
While Saudi Arabia has yet to announce a ban of any kind of TikTok, local users and followers are trying to practice caution while using the app anyway.
Alhumood considered making videos on the platform, but dismissed the idea and only uses it to follow other people’s videos.
“I have ideas for it, sure, but I’d rather not take the risk. I don’t even have a username or a registered account, and that’s one of the better things about TikTok. I only have the app, but I can still watch all the videos without giving them my private information.”
Mohammed also said that she had no interest in creating videos herself, though she did have a registered account in order to comment on videos and keep track of her favorites.
However Al-Jaber said that, in his opinion, registering an account on TikTok did not necessarily pose more of a risk than using other social media.
“If you use Facebook or Twitter, it’s not much different than using TikTok,” he said.