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.”


Saudis head out as lockdown eases

Updated 32 min 38 sec ago

Saudis head out as lockdown eases

  • First day of phased reopening sees visitors flock to waterfronts and malls

JEDDAH/RIYADH: As the 24-hour-curfew period ended, residents of Saudi Arabia headed back outside on the first day of the government’s three-phase plan to transition back to normality after the COVID-19 pandemic.

But as people rushed to take advantage of the newly relaxed measures, streets quickly became crowded and several observers noticed that many were failing to observe social-distancing measures.

Prince Abdulrahman bin Mosaad tweeted: “For there to be traffic in the streets is natural after canceling the 24-hour curfew, but what’s abnormal and unbelievable is the amount of people underestimating the necessity of putting on a face mask and a pair of gloves and keeping a two-meter space between people crowding at stores. This is only the first day. Unfortunately, I don’t think Shawwal 29 (June 21) will be the day we go back to normal.”

In a follow-up tweet, Prince Abdulrahman reminded people that the pandemic does not have a cure or a vaccine yet, and wondered whether people would need to lose a loved one before they came to appreciate the severity of the situation.

University lecturer, Abdulfattah Al-Qahtani (@fattah53), agreed, tweeting: “Sadly, not many understand the dangers of the virus, and what they could be doing to their loved ones. It’s very simple; don’t go out unless it’s necessary. If you absolutely have to, follow precautionary measures from wearing a mask to keeping an acceptable distance between you and others.”

Abdulaziz Al-Omar (@11a_alomar) also replied with suggestions. “It’s important to monitor and penalize facilities and shops that do not follow precautionary regulations, as well as fines against those who don’t wear a mask and don’t keep their distance from others,” he tweeted.

The hashtag #JeddahNow was quickly trending on Twitter in response to the number of people leaving their homes unnecessarily.

A number of users suggested that individuals neglecting social distancing and going out in public without a mask and gloves would be “more afraid of a SR10,000 fine than they are of the pandemic.”

However, many thought that people were overreacting to the traffic around the city’s corniche.

Sa’ad Mughram (@saad_mghrm) tweeted: “Don’t blame people for traffic. There are families that have been pressed together for three months in small apartments and reef houses. It’s their right to go out and see the sky on a short car ride.”

He added: “Overcrowding stores needs to be addressed, but things can be dealt with calmly, without overreacting and perfectionism from some.”

Sadly, not many understand the dangers of the virus, and what they could be doing to their loved ones. 

Abdulfattah Al-Qahtani , University lecturer

Some hailed the efforts made by several popular stores around the Kingdom that are enforcing social distancing, such as Madinah’s Starbucks, where a photo circulating on social media showed people lined up with the recommended space between them, demonstrating what was described as “classy behavior.”

Abdullah Al-Humaid, (@abn_humaid) commented: “It’s wonderful to see such awareness displayed in our society. These are people maintaining social distancing while wearing gloves and face masks.”

Meanwhile, many headed onto the streets of Riyadh looking to regain a sense of normality. “Of course, I went out. I took my mom and sister and drove to the nearest mall to run some errands,” 26-year-old Sarah Al-Jasser told Arab News.

However, Al-Jasser said she was unable to enter the shops inside the mall because of long queues. “I was surprised that people were out this early. We were at the mall by 9:30 a.m. and didn’t expect it to be this crowded,” she said.

By 2:30 p.m. most shops and malls were already closed and empty of customers and shopkeepers, abiding by the 3 p.m. curfew.

Rayed Mustafa, 33, told Arab News he believes the situation is still unsafe: “Just because the country is opening up doesn’t mean it’s safe to go out.”  However, that did not stop him from leaving  the house. “I pulled an all-nighter, put on my face mask and gloves and hit the streets at 6:30 a.m. to cruise the city.”

He added that he stayed in his car and was merely hoping to get some fresh air for his mental well-being. “I’ve been confined in a very small apartment for over a month,” he said. “I needed that change of scenery.” 

He said he made sure to abide by the safety and health measures put in place by the Ministry of Health, and refrained from mingling with people.

Mustafa was taken aback by the number of people he saw on the streets. 

“One of the main streets in Riyadh was filled to the brim — some celebrating, others going out for coffee,” he added.

Billboards have been placed around the Kingdom reminding people to comply with the recommended precautions in order to ensure their safety.