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.
Arab League Council holds urgent session to discuss attack on Jerusalem
BEIRUT: All Lebanese doctors have stopped working from Monday until the end of the week in protest against a court verdict. The medical profession in Lebanon is protesting against the judicial decision to pay high compensation to Ella Tannous, who had her limbs amputated due to a medical error six years ago. The protesting doctors…
BEIRUT: All Lebanese doctors have stopped working from Monday until the end of the week in protest against a court verdict.
The medical profession in Lebanon is protesting against the judicial decision to pay high compensation to Ella Tannous, who had her limbs amputated due to a medical error six years ago.
The protesting doctors have been joined by private hospitals, which have stopped receiving patients, except in emergency cases.
The girl’s father Hassan Tannous, however, praised the “honest judiciary.”
Many doctors, including the head of Lebanese Order of Physicians, Dr. Sharaf Abu Sharaf, and the head of the Syndicate of Private Hospital Owners, Suleiman Haroun, staged a sit-in in front of the Palace of Justice in Beirut, calling the ruling “unfair.”
The Tannous case goes back to February 2015, when she was admitted to Hôpital Notre Dame des Secours in Jbeil due to her high temperature.
Ella was diagnosed with a cold at the time, but her condition deteriorated and the child suffered septic shock, which led to gangrene that caused the amputation of her limbs.
The girl’s father had taken her to the Hotel Dieu Hospital, which refused to receive her.
He transferred her to the American University of Beirut Medical Center, where doctors decided to save her life by amputating her four limbs.
The tragedy led her parents to file a complaint in March 2015 before the Lebanese Order of Physicians against the doctor who examined her and Hôpital Notre Dame des Secours in Jbeil, on charges of neglecting the child’s health and not providing her with the necessary care.
More than one doctor was arrested and released on bail.
Those involved in the case exchanged accusations for years. The girl’s family objected to a medical report issued by the medical committee of the Lebanese Order of Physicians two months after the incident, calling it a “distortion of the facts.”
The final ruling, issued unanimously at the end of last week, by the Beirut Appeals Court, headed by Tarek Bitar, gave the girl’s family a positive surprise, while the Lebanese medical profession reacted to the ruling in a state of amazement and condemnation.
The ruling obligated the American University of Beirut Medical Center in Beirut, Hôpital Notre Dame des Secours in Jbeil and the two doctors — Essam M. and Rana Sh. — “to pay in joint and several liabilities to the child Tannous an amount of LBP 9 billion ($5.9 million) for damages, in addition to a monthly income for life estimated at four times the minimum wage.”
The ruling also stipulated “obliging the convicts to pay in joint and several liabilities an amount of LBP 500 million to the father of the child and LBP 500 million to her mother in exchange for damages.”
Medical errors committed against patients have often resulted in settlements. Some cases are still pending in the courts.
The head of the National Health Authority, Dr. Ismail Sukkarieh, told Arab News that the judicial ruling “is based more on emotions than wisdom, justice and scientific facts.”
Sukkarieh added: “The judiciary focused on the tragedy of the child’s condition, which cannot be compensated with money, without checking the stages of the disease and the accumulation of its causes.”
He said: “Hôpital Notre Dame des Secours in Jbeil was not equipped with intensive care for children. As for the doctors who saved the child through the amputation, they were spiritually affected.”
Hassan Tannous said that although the ruling “does not compensate for the loss of Ella to her limbs, it is a moral compensation.”
The father said the ruling “is a very strong message in the face of the perpetrators of medical errors, that there is an honest judiciary capable of restoring the rights of the owners.”
The girl’s family moved to France for her rehabilitation but continued to pursue the lawsuit until the end.
“It is a public rights issue to protect all Lebanese children from medical neglect,” said Hassan.
During the sit-in at the Palace of Justice on Monday, Dr. Abu Sharaf said: “There are complications that occur as a result of the medicines, and mistakes happen sometimes, but the doctors have no criminal intent. After today, no doctor will dare to work on difficult and rare cases.”
Dr. Ashraf called for “work to remove the effect of the judicial decision, and to establish a body specialized in medical matters in the judiciary to study medical problems.”
Hotel Dieu Hospital de France announced that it would stop receiving patients in all its departments and private clinics.
“It is unacceptable for doctors to pay the price for a health policy that does not exist in the first place,” said Elias Shallal, head of the hospital’s medical committee.
“It is unacceptable to applaud doctors for their role in the fight against coronavirus and after the Beirut Port explosion, and then attack them because of a medical error.”
The administration of Hôpital Notre Dame des Secours in Jbeil described the ruling as “unfair.”
It stopped receiving patients except in emergency cases.
The American University Medical Center in Beirut closed its clinics until further notice and stopped receiving patients, except for emergency cases.
Zverev beats Berrettini to win his 2nd Madrid Open title
MADRID: Aryna Sabalenka is glad she changed her mind about playing at the Madrid Open.Two weeks after nearly withdrawing from the tournament because of a muscle injury, Sabalenka was standing on center court with the winner’s trophy in her hands on Saturday.Sabalenka defeated top-ranked Ash Barty 6-0, 3-6, 6-4 for her 10th WTA title —…
MADRID: Aryna Sabalenka is glad she changed her mind about playing at the Madrid Open.Two weeks after nearly withdrawing from the tournament because of a muscle injury, Sabalenka was standing on center court with the winner’s trophy in her hands on Saturday.Sabalenka defeated top-ranked Ash Barty 6-0, 3-6, 6-4 for her 10th WTA title — and first on clay.In the men’s final on Sunday, 2018 champion Alexander Zverev will face eighth-seeded Matteo Berrettini.Sabalenka’s victory, coming two weeks after she was hurt in a loss to Barty in the Stuttgart final, will move the Belarus player to No. 4 in the world next week.“To be honest, after the final in Stuttgart I was injured, I couldn’t even move, I really wanted to withdraw from here,” she said. “And I don’t know how, but my team … the recovery was really good. In four days they made me feel much better. Somehow I’m here standing as the champion of this tournament.”Sabalenka injured an adductor muscle in the three-set loss in Germany to Barty, who had won all of her three previous finals this year.It was the second title for Sabalenka this year after winning the season-opener in Abu Dhabi. She also lost to Barty in the Miami quarterfinals.In the men’s semifinals, Zverev followed his triumph over Rafael Nadal with a win over Dominic Thiem to reach another Madrid Open final. He will face No. 10-ranked Berrettini, who beat Casper Ruud 6-4, 6-4.No. 6 Zverev defeated No. 4 Thiem 6-3, 6-4 to reach the final again after beating Thiem for the 2018 title. He will be trying to win his second title this year after triumphing in Acapulco in March.Zverev broke Thiem’s serve once in the first set and twice in the second on the Magic Box center court.The German has yet to drop a set, including against Nadal in the Friday quarterfinals.“They’re probably the two clay-courters that you think of right now when you’re thinking about Roland Garros and the biggest chances of winning,” Zverev said of Nadal and Thiem. “Rafa is the favorite no matter what. Probably Novak (Djokovic) second, Dominic a close third. It’s been so far a good week for me. The job is not done yet.”Berrettini didn’t face a break point as he defeated Ruud to return to a final after winning Belgrade two weeks ago. He will be trying to win his first Masters 1000 final.“The key today was putting pressure on his serve,” Berrettini said. “I was always trying to get the momentum and attacking even his first serve. I know that he likes to have time, run around the forehand. I tried to do that. It worked out pretty well.”Thiem was playing in his first tournament since March after consecutive losses in Dubai and Doha. He has mostly struggled since winning the US Open for his first grand slam title.“In general I’m super happy with the week,” Thiem said. “I would have never expected to be in the semifinals, to play in the semifinals a player like him. I cannot complain about anything. Just, of course, there are many things to improve.”In the women’s doubles final, Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, both from the Czech Republic, defeated Gabriela Dabrowski of Canada and Demi Schuurs of France 6-4, 6-3.
After outcry, BJP denies setting up COVID-19 help desks for cows
BEIJING: A large segment of a Chinese rocket re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrated over the Indian Ocean on Sunday, the Chinese space agency said, following fevered speculation over where the 18-ton object would come down. Officials in Beijing had said there was little risk from the freefalling segment of the Long March-5B rocket, which…
BEIJING: A large segment of a Chinese rocket re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrated over the Indian Ocean on Sunday, the Chinese space agency said, following fevered speculation over where the 18-ton object would come down.
Officials in Beijing had said there was little risk from the freefalling segment of the Long March-5B rocket, which had launched the first module of China’s new space station into Earth orbit on April 29.
But the US space agency NASA and some experts said China had behaved irresponsibly, as an uncontrolled re-entry of such a large object risked damage and casualties.
“After monitoring and analysis, at 10:24 (0224 GMT) on May 9, 2021, the last-stage wreckage of the Long March 5B Yao-2 launch vehicle has re-entered the atmosphere,” the China Manned Space Engineering Office said in a statement, providing coordinates for a point in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives.
It added that most of the segment disintegrated and was destroyed during descent.
The US military’s Space Command said the rocket “re-entered over the Arabian Peninsula at approximately 10:15 p.m. EDT on May 8 (0215 GMT Sunday).”
“It is unknown if the debris impacted land or water.”
Monitoring service Space-Track, which uses US military data, said that the location in Saudi Arabia was where American systems last recorded it.
“Operators confirm that the rocket actually went into the Indian Ocean north of the Maldives,” it tweeted.
The segment’s descent matched expert predictions that any debris would have splashed down into the ocean, given that 70 percent of the planet is covered by water.
Because it was an uncontrolled descent, there was widespread public interest and speculation about where the debris would land.
American and European space authorities were among those tracking the rocket and trying to predict its re-entry.
Objects generate immense amounts of heat and friction when they enter the atmosphere, which can cause them to burn up and disintegrate. But larger ones such as the Long March-5B may not be destroyed entirely.
Their wreckage can land on the surface of the planet and may cause damage and casualties, though that risk is low.
Last year, debris from another Chinese Long March rocket fell on villages in the Ivory Coast, causing structural damage but no injuries or deaths.
That, and the one that came down Sunday, are tied for the fourth-biggest objects in history to undergo an uncontrolled re-entry, according to data from Harvard-based astronomer Jonathan McDowell.
The uncertainty and risks of such a re-entry sparked accusations that Beijing had behaved irresponsibly.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin suggested last week that China had been negligent, and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson echoed that after the re-entry on Sunday.
“Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations,” Nelson said in a statement.
“It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.”
To avoid such scenarios, some experts have recommended a redesign of the Long March-5B rocket – which is not equipped for a controlled descent.
“An ocean reentry was always statistically the most likely,” McDowell tweeted.
“It appears China won its gamble (unless we get news of debris in the Maldives). But it was still reckless.”
Chinese authorities had downplayed the risk, however.
“The probability of causing harm to aviation activities or (on people and activities) on the ground is extremely low,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Friday.
Beijing has poured billions of dollars into space exploration to boost its global stature and technological might.
The launch of the first module of its space station – by the Long March rocket that came down Sunday – was a milestone in its ambitious plan to establish a permanent human presence in space.