Pandemic puts a Gulf AI company on the cutting edge of genome research

An Emirati man gets vaccinated against the COVID-19 coronavirus at Al-Barsha Health Center on Dec. 24, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)
An Emirati man gets vaccinated against the COVID-19 coronavirus at Al-Barsha Health Center on Dec. 24, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 02 May 2021

Pandemic puts a Gulf AI company on the cutting edge of genome research

An Emirati man gets vaccinated against the COVID-19 coronavirus at Al-Barsha Health Center on Dec. 24, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Genetic analysis to help scientists better understand origins of COVID-19, identify variants and improve testing
  • If successful, Abu Dhabi-based G42 Healthcare’s Hayat-Vax will make the UAE the first Arab country to produce a COVID-19 vaccine

DUBAI: The blueprint for all living things, from plants and animals to microscopic viruses, is coded into their DNA and RNA — molecular structures that communicate the genetic information that determines the characteristics of all cellular organisms. 

Genomic sequencing studies that untangle these structures are helping scientists to understand the origins of the novel coronavirus, also known as SARS-CoV-2, as well as identify its potentially more contagious variants. 

Without this field of research, COVID-19 testing and the current rollout of vaccines would not have been possible. In fact, the pandemic has forced a radical advancement of our scientific understanding of the coronavirus, leading to revolutionary new mRNA vaccines created by Pfizer and Moderna.

Knowledge of the virus’s RNA sequence was a key factor in COVID-19’s early detection, which has enabled the rapid development of diagnostic techniques. Never before have the nearly 30,000 nucleotides of a virus been so closely examined. 




People queue in front of a designated COVID-19 vaccination center at Dubai's financial center district. (AFP/File Photo)

Genomic surveillance studies are taking place in laboratories around the world. In South Africa, it was a genomic sequencing study that uncovered the B.1.351 variant (also known as 501Y.V2), which the scientific community fears is particularly contagious. 

In the race to understand the source of the coronavirus, G42 Healthcare, an Abu Dhabi-based artificial intelligence and cloud computing company, launched its own SARS-CoV2 genome sequencing study last year. 

The entire study will soon be published as a scientific paper, which is now in its final stages of production. 

The company has also recently announced its collaboration with China’s Sinopharm CNBG to develop Hayat-Vax — “Hayat” meaning “life” in Arabic — with the potential to make the UAE the first Arab country to develop its own COVID-19 vaccine. 

As rich nations squabble over a limited supply of vaccines, Hayat-Vax is seen by some as a promising new option for the developing world — that is, if Phase III clinical trials are opened to peer review and the public is convinced it can be trusted.




Genomic surveillance studies are taking place in laboratories around the world, including in the Emirati capital of Abu Dhabi. (AN Photo/Rebecca Anne Proctor)

On April 21, Abu Dhabi approved the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Sinopharm had been the only available shot in the UAE capital for the general public since December 2020.

“The UAE has been at the global forefront of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic with many firsts,” Ashish Koshy, CEO of G42 Healthcare, told Arab News. 

“From setting up one of the largest testing and diagnostics labs to the region’s first Phase III clinical trials for an inactivated COVID-19 vaccine, to the timely Emergency Use Authorization to protect our frontline health care workers and now a national vaccination program that has vaccinated over 52 percent of the nation’s population,” Koshy said. 

“It is a global benchmark, with the UAE ranking among the top three nations in the world on per hundred being vaccinated.” 

 

Why is genomic surveillance important for public health?

* SARS-CoV-2 genome is packed inside an envelope that contains proteins, including the spike protein.

* Mutations are changes in the virus’ genetic code that naturally occur over time when an animal or person is infected.

* Many mutations do not affect the virus’ ability to spread or cause disease because they do not alter the major proteins involved in infection.

* Surveillance of emerging variants can help detect variants with various abilities, including evasion of vaccine-induced immunity.

G42 Healthcare was established in December 2019 under the guidance of the UAE Department of Health. It partnered with the Shenzhen-based Chinese genomics company BGI to build a COVID-19 testing laboratory in the UAE, using Israeli contractors to develop technologies to fight the disease. 

BGI was established in 1999 as the Beijing Genomics Institute, a state-backed laboratory assisting the Human Genome Project — a global initiative to create the first comprehensive mapping of human DNA. 

G42’s COVID-19 genome sequencing study took place between May and June 2020 and involved 1,067 nasal swab samples collected in Abu Dhabi, under the oversight of the Department of Health. 

The study has revealed genetic variations of the virus and spread patterns specific to the UAE. The findings are expected to improve diagnosis accuracy by enhancing the design of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, allowing them to detect new local variants. 




The UAE has been at the global forefront of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic with many firsts, Ashish Koshy, CEO of G42 Healthcare, told Arab News. (AN Photo/Rebecca Anne Proctor)

“One of the key factors for our collective success has been the efficient and timely implementation of a public-private partnership model with international collaboration of best-in-class experts to not only address challenges but create capabilities for future-proofing the health of our nation,” Koshy said. 

“One such example is the study on COVID-19 variants, which is helping us gather additional insights for pandemic management and effective public health care systems.” 

The mission is particularly timely given the recent discoveries of more infectious strains of the virus in the UK, South Africa and now the worrying P1 variant spreading from Brazil, which scientists fear may be especially resistant to the current crop of vaccines. 

“The analysis of this study revealed some variations specific to the UAE and patterns of the virus spread during the first wave. The analysis of second-wave samples is still ongoing on a countrywide scale,” Dr. Walid Abbas Zaher, chief research officer at G42, told Arab News. 

“The results from the study and similar studies usually result in improvement in both diagnostic accuracy and sensitivity. This study also provides additional insights to sustainable screening methods and how to help the country prepare for future outbreaks.” 

G42 was also responsible for coordinating Sinopharm’s Phase III clinical trials in the UAE and elsewhere in the Middle East, with more than 43,000 volunteers from 125 nationalities participating in the trials, launched in July 2020. It told Arab News that “a select group of people are being administered a third shot in order to observe their immune system response.” 




A healthcare worker administers a shot of China's Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine to a man at the Guru Nanak Darbar Gurudwara in Dubai on February 28, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)

It also said “the ongoing study in UAE is in close consultation between Sinopharm and the UAE authorities, based on scientific safety protocols, and as part of risk mitigation for public safety during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.” 

Understanding slight variations and mutations may be the key to ultimately defeating the virus, ending the pandemic and — finally — lifting restrictions. 

“It is known that viruses constantly change through mutation and new variants are expected to come over time — that is a part of how viruses always try to outsmart physicians,” Zaher said. 

“This study and similar studies are helping to understand symptoms and how they affect the spread of the virus. Small mutations of the virus usually do not affect the vaccine. However, these mutations and their effects on the efficacy of the vaccine are still being studied for various vaccines including Sinopharm.” 

Genetic analysis is a fast-growing industry. Beyond its COVID-19 research, G42 also offers consumer genomics testing, which examines an individual’s DNA and “screens” it for potential “problem areas,” Dr. Sally Mahmoud, lab director and clinical pathologist at Biogenix Labs, a G42 company, told Arab News. 

“By using consumer genomics testing, a person can watch out for any lifestyle-based diseases and acquire an understanding of the potential risk factors which could lead to the development of certain inherited disorders,” she said. 

In effect, understanding our DNA can help prevent or manage illnesses later on. 

As the pandemic drives forward our understanding of biology’s most fundamental blueprints, new realms of opportunity are opening up in science and medicine — and the Arab region has its part to play. 

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Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor


French FM says Lebanon needs saving from ‘collective suicide’

French FM says Lebanon needs saving from ‘collective suicide’
Updated 25 min 36 sec ago

French FM says Lebanon needs saving from ‘collective suicide’

French FM says Lebanon needs saving from ‘collective suicide’
BEIRUT: France’s top diplomat wielded the threat of more sanctions in Beirut Friday to prevent what he described as a “collective suicide” organized by members of Lebanon’s ruling political class.
Lebanon’s leaders had promised reform in the aftermath of a deadly explosion at Beirut port last year but, nine months on, they have yet to form a government.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, whose country has spearheaded international efforts to assist Lebanon’s moribund economy, said there was no sign of a breakthrough.
“It is indeed urgent to find a way out of the political deadlock,” he told reporters just before wrapping up a two-day visit to Beirut.
“To this day, my observation is that the political players have not lived up to their responsibilities and have still not seriously started working on the country’s recovery.”
Le Drian held talks on Thursday with President Michel Aoun, parliament speaker Nabih Berri and prime minister-designate Saad Hariri.
“If they do not act now in a responsible surge of effort, they will face the consequences of this failure,” he said.
Le Drian, who had last year already compared Lebanon to “the Titanic minus the orchestra,” accused those responsible for the deadlock of leading the country to its death.
“I am here precisely to prevent this kind of collective suicide organized by some,” he said.
France announced late last month it had started imposing entry restrictions on certain figures for their role in the political crisis and in corruption.
Le Drian refused to provide names but warned that the sanctions could be made tougher and extended to other politicians.
“It is up to the Lebanese officials to decide whether they want to break out of the deadlock hey have organized,” he said.
Le Drian’s official meetings on Thursday were not followed by joint press conferences. His appointment with Hariri was short and kept under wraps until the last minute.
The French minister also held a meeting with representatives of opposition parties which was welcomed by their leaders as a sign that the international community was increasingly open to political alternatives.

Moroccan FM: Iran is working to destabilize North and West Africa

Moroccan FM: Iran is working to destabilize North and West Africa
Updated 29 min 18 sec ago

Moroccan FM: Iran is working to destabilize North and West Africa

Moroccan FM: Iran is working to destabilize North and West Africa

DUBAI: Iran is working through its proxies to destabilize North and West Africa, Al Arabiya reported on Friday citing the Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita.

Iran threatens our territorial integrity and is training its militias to attack us, the Moroccan minister said, adding that Tehran was expanding its sphere of influence through Hezbollah.


More bickering as UN meets for 89th time to discuss Syria’s chemical weapons

More bickering as UN meets for 89th time to discuss Syria’s chemical weapons
Updated 07 May 2021

More bickering as UN meets for 89th time to discuss Syria’s chemical weapons

More bickering as UN meets for 89th time to discuss Syria’s chemical weapons
  • Russia again defends Assad regime and condemns Western nations for Syria’s suspension from Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons
  • Security Council hears the organization’s investigators found evidence of a chlorine gas attack on town of Saraqib in February 2018

NEW YORK: A Syrian Air Force helicopter dropped a chlorine bomb on the opposition-held town of Saraqib, on Feb. 4, 2018, an investigation team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has concluded.

Investigators found “reasonable grounds to believe” at least one cylinder landed in the eastern part of the town, releasing a cloud of toxic gas that covered a large area and affected 12 people.

The incident was the focus on Thursday of a Security Council meeting to discuss the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, and its failure to comply with a UN resolution ordering the destruction of all such weapons. It was the 89th time the council has gathered to discuss the issue of chemical weapons in Syria.

Members were briefed by Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN’s under-secretary-general and high representative for disarmament affairs, on the implementation of Resolution 2118. It was unanimously adopted in September 2013 following a UN investigation that confirmed the use of chemical weapons against civilians in a Damascus suburb the previous month. Images of people, including children, suffocating after breathing in the nerve agent caused outrage worldwide.

The resolution called on the Syrian regime to destroy its stockpiles of chemical weapons by mid-2014, and set out punitive measures in the event of non-compliance. It banned the regime from using, developing, producing, acquiring, stockpiling or retaining chemical weapons, or transferring them to other states or non-state actors.

In October 2013, Syria submitted to the OPCW a formal initial declaration about its chemical-weapons program, including a plan for the destruction of its stockpiles. Since then, however, the OPCW’s Declaration Assessment Team has been trying to resolve outstanding issues with the regime’s declaration.

Nakamitsu told the council the declaration still cannot be considered accurate and complete because of “identified gaps, and inconsistencies and discrepancies that remain unresolved.”

A new issue has been added to the list of 19 existing issues that remain outstanding because the Syrian government has failed to respond to a UN order to disclose the types and quantities of chemical agents produced or weaponized at various sites.

The new issue concerns the discovery by OPCW of a “neat chemical warfare agent” in samples collected from a former chemical weapons production facility. The Syrian government had not declared the production of this chemical agent, and the explanations it gave for its detection were described by Nakamitsu as “not sufficient to explain the results from the sample analysis.”

She said the number and nature of the outstanding issues is “concerning,” and added: “The confidence of the international community in the complete elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons program depends upon these issues being finalized.”

Nakamitsu urged the council to “unite on this issue” but her plea fell on deaf ears.

The Russian representative came to the defense of the Assad regime and again attempted to discredit the OPCW by saying its report is “replete with technical errors and does not stand up to any criticism,” and describing it as a “forgery” in which “free thinkers” who refused to take part were “intimated.”

Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s first deputy permanent representative, also criticized Western countries for suspending the rights and privileges of Syria at the OPCW.

Last month, states that are parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) suspended Syria’s OPCW membership because of its non-compliance with the treaty. The decision bars Syria from voting at CWC conferences or serving on the OPCW until it fulfills certain obligations, including declaring the chemical weapons it possesses and related production facilities, and resolving all outstanding issues with its initial declaration.

Human Rights Watch had said: “Syria’s use of chemical weapons is the biggest implementation and compliance crisis parties have faced since (the CWC came) into force in 1997.

“While this move (the Syrian suspension) would be largely symbolic, it is essential to remind the world of the extent and severity of war crimes by Syrian government forces.”

Polyanskiy said the unprecedented suspension was “a violation of norms by Western colleagues (and) another blow has been dealt to the OPCW’s credibility.” He added that it is part of an anti-Syria campaign that seeks to make Damascus an outcast in the OPCW.

“Do (Western countries) really expect that they will continue to do business as usual with Damascus?” he asked.

The rest of the council welcomed the “historic decision” by the Conference of the States Parties.

Richard Mills, the US deputy ambassador to the UN, said it “sends a clear and collective message that the use of chemical weapons has consequences, and repeated failures by Syria to adhere to its obligations will not be tolerated.”

He added: “It is time for the Assad regime to adhere to its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and Resolution 2118.”

Mills told his fellow council members that the findings of the investigation into the chlorine attack “should come as no surprise to those familiar with the abuses committed by the Assad regime against the Syrian people.”

Although the OPCW has attributed eight chemical weapons attacks to the regime, Mills said: “The United States assesses that the regime’s innumerable atrocities — some of which rise to the level of war crimes, crimes against humanity — include at least 50 chemical-weapons attacks since the conflict began.”

He accused the Assad regime of retaining sufficient supplies of chemicals that allow it to use sarin gas, to produce and deploy chlorine-based weapons, and to develop and produce other chemical weapons. The OPCW report, he said, is just the latest reminder of the regime’s flagrant disregard for the rule of law.

Mills also criticized Russia for holding an informal meeting last month to “impugn the OPCW and push a false narrative (of) a Western plot to attempt regime change in Damascus.”

“This Council and UN member states are not fooled by this Russian disinformation tactic,” he added, noting that the majority of council members refute the arguments by Russia and “its hand-selected presenters.”

Nicolas de Riviere, France’s permanent representative to the UN, who initiated the proposal to suspend Syria’s OPCW rights, said: “Let’s be clear, we are not pleased about having to suspend some rights and privileges of a state party. It is the flagrant and repeated violations of its international commitments that have left us with no choice.

“If Syria hopes to restore its rights and privileges, then it must comply with its international obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which it chose to adhere.”


UAE confirms 1,724 new COVID-19 cases, 3 deaths

UAE confirms 1,724 new COVID-19 cases, 3 deaths
Updated 07 May 2021

UAE confirms 1,724 new COVID-19 cases, 3 deaths

UAE confirms 1,724 new COVID-19 cases, 3 deaths
  • UAE vaccine distribution rate is now at 110.28 doses per 100 people

DUBAI: UAE health officials confirmed 1,724 new coronavirus cases and three additional fatalities overnight even amid a continued nationwide vaccination campaign against the highly contagious disease.

The latest cases bring the total number of recorded infections in the UAE to 530,944 and the number of deaths to 1,604, the Ministry of Health and Prevention said in a report from state news agency WAM.

The ministry aims to continue expanding the scope of testing nationwide to facilitate the early detection of coronavirus cases and carry out the necessary treatment, the report added.

Meanwhile, an additional 72,811 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered during the past 24 hours for a total of 10,907,264 doses thus far or a distribution rate of 110.28 doses per 100 people.


Merkel tells Turkey’s Erdogan withdrawal of troops from Libya would be ‘important signal’

Merkel tells Turkey’s Erdogan withdrawal of troops from Libya would be ‘important signal’
Updated 07 May 2021

Merkel tells Turkey’s Erdogan withdrawal of troops from Libya would be ‘important signal’

Merkel tells Turkey’s Erdogan withdrawal of troops from Libya would be ‘important signal’
  • Merkel and Erdogan agreed in a video conference to support the interim government of Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh

BERLIN: German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday that the withdrawal of foreign troops from Libya would be an “important signal” as both leaders vowed to support the new interim government there, a German government spokesman said.
Libya’s new unity government was sworn in on March 15 from two warring administrations that had ruled eastern and western regions, completing a relatively smooth transition of power after a decade of violent chaos.
Turkey had backed the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord against the eastern-based Libyan National Army, which was supported by Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and France.
Merkel and Erdogan agreed in a video conference to support the interim government of Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh in its efforts to improve the supply situation for the population and in preparing elections by year-end, the spokesman said.
“The Chancellor emphasized that an early start of the withdrawal of foreign soldiers and mercenaries would send an important signal,” the spokesman added.
Merkel and Erdogan also discussed international efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic as well as regional issues such as the civil war in Syria and international talks about the Cyprus issue, the spokesman said.
“The Chancellor and the Turkish President emphasized that adequate access for humanitarian aid to the people in need in Syria must be maintained,” the spokesman said. (Reporting by Michael Nienaber; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Alistair Bell)