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


Iran sentences ex-central bank chief to 10 years in prison

Iran sentences ex-central bank chief to 10 years in prison
Updated 5 sec ago

Iran sentences ex-central bank chief to 10 years in prison

Iran sentences ex-central bank chief to 10 years in prison
TEHRAN: A court sentenced the former governor of Iran’s central bank to 10 years in prison for violating the country’s currency system, a judiciary spokesperson said Saturday.
Besides violating the currency system, Valliollah Seif also had a role in smuggling foreign currency, judiciary spokesman Zabihollah Khodaeian told state TV.
Ahmad Araghchi, a then-deputy to Seif, was sentenced to eight years on the same charges, Khodaeian said. Eight others were also sentenced to various prison terms, he said. All of the defendants have the right to appeal.
Seif was governor of Iran’s central bank for five years until 2018 under former President Hassan Rouhani. Araghchi was his deputy from 2017 to 2018.
State TV said they were involved in violations of the currency market in 2016, a time when the Iranian rial sustained considerable losses in value against major foreign currencies.
The defendants illegally injected $160 million and 20 million euros into the market, state TV said.
The rial exchange rate was at 39,000 to $1 in 2017 at the beginning of Araghchi’s time in office but it reached more than 110,000 to $1 by the time he was dismissed in 2018. The change partly coincided with severe US sanctions imposed on Tehran.
The rial has tumbled from a rate of around 32,000 rials to $1 at the time of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers to around 27,000 rials to $1 in recent months. The currency unexpectedly rallied for some time after President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the nuclear deal and reimpose crippling trade sanctions on Iran in 2018.
The sanctions have caused Iran’s oil exports, the country’s main source of income, to fall sharply.

Lebanese Christian group denies Hezbollah claim it planned Beirut bloodshed

Lebanese Christian group denies Hezbollah claim it planned Beirut bloodshed
Updated 16 October 2021

Lebanese Christian group denies Hezbollah claim it planned Beirut bloodshed

Lebanese Christian group denies Hezbollah claim it planned Beirut bloodshed

BEIRUT: The head of the Christian Lebanese Forces party (LF) denied late on Friday his group had planned street violence in Beirut that killed seven people, and said a meeting held the day before was purely political.
Thursday’s violence, which began as people were gathering for a protest called by Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah against the judge investigating last year’s Beirut port blast, was the worst in over a decade and stirred memories of the country’s ruinous sectarian civil war from 1975-90.
Samir Geagea told Voice of Lebanon International radio that a meeting held on Wednesday by a political grouping the LF belongs to had discussed action options should Iran-backed Hezbollah succeed in efforts to remove the judge.
Geagea said the option agreed upon in that event was to call for a public strike, and nothing else.
The powerful Hezbollah group stepped up accusations against the LF on Friday, saying it killed the seven Shiites to try to drag the country into a civil war.
The violence, which erupted at a boundary between Christian and Shiite neighborhoods, has added to concerns over the stability of a country that is awash with weapons and grappling with one of the world’s worst ever economic meltdowns.
Asked whether the presence of LF members in the areas of Ain Al-Remmaneh and Teyouneh, where the shooting erupted, meant the incident was planned, Geagea said they were always present in these areas.
The security coordinator in the party contacted the authorities when they heard a protest was planned and asked for a heavy military presence in the area “as our priority was for the demonstration to pass by simply as a demonstration and not affect civil peace,” Geagea said.
Geagea said his party was assured that would be the case.
“The army has arrested snipers so they need to tell us who they are and where they came from.”
Nineteen people have been detained so far in relation to the incident.


Turkey plans military action against Syrian Kurdish YPG if diplomacy fails

Turkey plans military action against Syrian Kurdish YPG if diplomacy fails
Updated 16 October 2021

Turkey plans military action against Syrian Kurdish YPG if diplomacy fails

Turkey plans military action against Syrian Kurdish YPG if diplomacy fails
  • Erdogan says will eliminate threats, latest attack ‘final straw.’

ANKARA: Turkey is preparing for possible further military action against a US-backed Kurdish militia in northern Syria if talks on the issue with the US and Russia fail, two Turkish officials said.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this week Ankara was determined to eliminate threats originating in northern Syria and that a Kurdish YPG militia attack that killed two Turkish police officers was “the final straw.”
Turkey said the police in Syria’s Azaz region were hit in a guided missile attack on Sunday launched from Tel Rifaat by the YPG, which Ankara considers a terrorist group closely linked to militants fighting a decades-old insurgency in southeast Turkey.
“It is essential that the areas, notably the Tel Rifaat region from which attacks are constantly carried out against us, are cleansed,” one senior official told Reuters.
Turkish forces have launched three incursions in the last five years, seizing hundreds of kilometers of border strip and pushing around 30 km into northern Syria.
Russian jets, Iran-backed fighters, Turkish-supported insurgents, jihadists, US troops and Syrian government forces also operate across the patchwork of territories in northern Syria, as well as the Kurdish YPG.
The US views the YPG as a key ally in the fight against Daesh in northeast Syria. Russia has forces in the area to support Syrian President Bashar Assad.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Turkey has carried out three incursions in Syria in recent years.

• Official says YPG militia must be pushed back at least 30 km.

The time and nature of any further Turkish military action was unclear.
The official said the military and national intelligence agency were making preparations.
“The decision for this has been taken and the necessary coordination will be done with particular countries. This subject will be discussed with Russia and the United States,” he added.
The officials said Erdogan would discuss the issue with US President Joe Biden at a G20 summit of the world’s major economies in Rome at the end of October.
Another official said the YPG must be pushed back at least 30 km, noting Russia was completely in control of the areas from which recent attacks had come, along with some Iranian elements.
Erdogan will speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin after the talks with Biden, he said.
“If there is no outcome from diplomacy and the PYD does not leave these areas, an operation appears unavoidable,” he said, using the abbreviation for the YPG’s political wing and referring to Tel Rifaat and “several other locations.”
On Monday, shells believed to have been fired from a YPG-controlled area east of Tel Rifaat exploded in the Turkish town of Karkamis, across the border from Syria’s Jarablus, causing slight damage, Turkey said.
Azaz and Jarablus have been under the control of rebels backed by Turkey since Ankara’s first incursion into Syria in 2016 — an operation that aimed to drive Daesh militants and the YPG away from the border.
Since then Ankara has launched two other operations in Syria against the YPG, one targeting the northwest Afrin region and one further east.


EU: Iran not ready to resume Vienna talks

EU: Iran not ready to resume Vienna talks
Updated 16 October 2021

EU: Iran not ready to resume Vienna talks

EU: Iran not ready to resume Vienna talks
  • Tehran criticizes UN agency over Israel ‘negligence’

BRUSSELS: Iran is not ready to return to talks with world powers over its nuclear program yet and its new negotiating team wants to discuss the texts that will be put forward when it meets with the EU in Brussels in the next few weeks, a senior EU official said on Friday.
EU political director Enrique Mora, the chief coordinator for the talks, was in Tehran on Thursday to meet members of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, four months after discussions broke off between Iran and world powers.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has so far refused to resume indirect talks with the US in Vienna on both sides returning to compliance with the deal, under which Iran curbed its nuclear program in return for economic sanctions relief.
Diplomats from France, Britain and Germany, who are party to the accord along with China and Russia, said ahead of Mora’s visit that it came at a critical time and things could not be deemed “business as usual” given escalating Iranian nuclear activities and the stalling of negotiations.
The US said time was running short. “They are not yet ready for engaging in Vienna,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity, adding that he believed Tehran was “absolutely decided to go back to Vienna and to end the negotiations.”
The Islamic Republic has repeatedly said it will return to the negotiations “soon,” but it has not given a clearer timeline.
Western diplomats had hoped the Vienna talks might resume before the end of October.
However, after Mora’s visit, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said it would hold talks in the coming days with the EU in Brussels.
“They insisted that they don’t want talks for talks, they want talking with practical results and with a final agreement on how to bring JCPOA (the nuclear deal) back to life,” the official said.
Describing a meeting in Brussels as a “good idea,” the official said it would allow both sides to go through the texts on the table from June and clarify questions that Iran’s new negotiating team may have. “I think we are just clarifying even more the situation for a final destination, which is going to be resuming in Vienna. I expect that soon,” he said.
France’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Anne-Claire Legendre said negotiations should resume immediately based on where they left off in June to reach a deal quickly.
“Iran must show a willingness through acts that it shares the same desire to come back to the negotiating table and conclude an agreement,” she told reporters.
Western diplomats have said they are concerned Tehran’s new negotiating team — under a president known as an anti-Western hard-liner, unlike his pragmatist predecessor — may make new demands beyond the scope of what had already been agreed.

BACKGROUND

Iran has repeatedly said it will return to the negotiations ‘soon,’ but it has not given a clearer timeline. Western diplomats had hoped the Vienna talks might resume before October-end.

Separately, Iran sharply criticized the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency for keeping its eyes trained on the Islamic republic while ignoring its arch-enemy Israel’s suspected nuclear program.
Israel is widely believed to be the Middle East’s sole nuclear arms possessor with up to 300 warheads, but it has long refused to confirm or deny it has such weapons and unlike Iran is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
“Silence and negligence about Israel’s nuclear program sends a negative message to the NPT members,” Kazem Gharibabadi, Iran’s ambassador to the UN agency, tweeted.
Being an NPT signatory meant “accepting the robust verifications,” while being outside it meant being “free from any obligation and criticism, and even (getting) rewarded”, he wrote.
“What is the advantage of being both a NPT member and fully implementing the agency’s safeguards?
Gharibabadi was reacting to an interview given by IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi to Energy Intelligence earlier this month.
Asked why the IAEA is so focused on Iran’s nuclear program but not Israel’s, he responded: “Our relation with Israel is based on the one that you have with a country which is not a party to the NPT.”
Iran has been a signatory to the NPT since 1970, the year it came into force, and has always denied it has any ambitions to acquire or manufacture an atomic bomb.
Israel, which has never signed up to the treaty, has repeatedly warned that it will do whatever it takes to prevent Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.
The NPT calls on nations “to achieve the cessation of the nuclear arms race and to undertake measures in the direction of nuclear disarmament.”


UN urges ceasefire in Marib for ‘safe passage’

UN urges ceasefire in Marib for ‘safe passage’
Updated 16 October 2021

UN urges ceasefire in Marib for ‘safe passage’

UN urges ceasefire in Marib for ‘safe passage’
  • Marib, Shabwa and Al-Bayda provinces have all seen an escalation in fighting in recent weeks

SANAA: The UN has called for a halt to fighting in a district of Yemen’s oil-rich Marib province that pits government forces supported by the Arab coalition against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
Marib, Shabwa and Al-Bayda provinces have all seen an escalation in fighting in recent weeks, resulting in “a devastating impact on civilians,” according to David Gressly, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen.
The security situation has been particularly difficult in Marib’s Abedia district, where the UN says the movement of aid and some 35,000 people has been “extremely restricted,” including for 17,000 “extremely vulnerable” people who found refuge there from conflict in other areas of Yemen.
“I call on all parties involved in the fighting to agree now to a cessation of hostilities for Abedia district to allow for the safe passage of civilians and aid workers, and for the evacuation of all of those wounded in the fighting,” Gressly said in a statement.
The fighting in Marib — where the Houthis are battling to seize the provincial capital Marib city, the government’s last stronghold in northern Yemen — displaced some 10,000 people in September alone, the highest monthly figure so far this year.
Abedia is about 100 km from Marib city, which had between 20,000 and 30,000 inhabitants before the war, but has seen its population swell to hundreds of thousands by Yemenis displaced from earlier front lines.
With about 139 refugee camps in Marib province, according to the government, hosting around 2.2 million people, many displaced civilians have become caught in the line of fire once again.
The Houthis began a big push to seize Marib in February and, after a lull, they renewed their campaign in September, prompting intense air bombardment from the coalition.
The coalition entered the war in 2015, after the Houthis captured the capital Sanaa the previous year.