As almost every health-care system in the world scrambles to test as many people as possible for the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), which causes the Covid-19 disease, shortages of necessary equipment are almost inescapable. In a bid to help, researchers in Jordan have streamlined the process in which viral genetic material is extracted by using a new technique with fewer stages, compared to traditional methods.
“It’s easier and faster,” says Walid Al-Zyoud, head of the biomedical engineering department at the German Jordanian University, in Amman. “We’re also talking about self-dependence for Jordan during the global shortage of tests.” (The research was done with Hazem Haddad, head of MENA molecular genomics and the bio-risk management division at the Jordan University of Science and Technology, and under the auspices of the Jordanian Society of Genetic Engineers).
Currently, most tests look for the presence of the virus’s specific genetic code within a sample—usually taken from a nasal or throat swab. But these viral genes are protected and encased by a rudimentary membrane-like structure known as the viral envelope, so one of the first stages of any testing process is to extract and isolate the genes. This usually involves several rounds of centrifugation with different chemicals, filters and buffering solutions to separate out the various components of the sample. Some of those chemicals are in short supply, which is contributing to the testing delays.
“We’ve come up with a chemical formula where we can open the envelope in a cheaper and quicker way,” says Al-Zyoud. “We open the envelope with our solution and then we have a quick centrifugation step for a few minutes.”
“We’ve come up with a chemical formula where we can open the envelope in a cheaper and quicker way.”Walid Al-Zyoud
Head of the biomedical engineering department at the German Jordanian University, in Amman
Al-Zyoud and his colleagues tried this new method out on ten samples at the Jordanian Ministry of Health, which were later corroborated with the traditional way of doing things. “Our results were really promising,” he says.
A ‘Remarkable Achievement’
Independent experts cautiously agree. “They got rid of a very crucial step in the process, which is the bottleneck right now,” says Susu Zughaier, assistant professor of microbiology at Qatar University who was not involved in the research. “They’ve overcome a hurdle that currently causes delays.”
But Zughaier warns that more rigorous verification is needed before any new method is rolled out. “I can’t speak for the quality because there aren’t enough details to fully evaluate it yet,” she says.
Specifically, Zughaier would like to see more data on how sensitive the test is; does it reliably return a positive result even if the test sample has only a small number of viral particles?
“There doesn’t yet seem to be enough validation,” she says. “The limit of detection is a question here, but I’m not undermining their remarkable achievement to solve the problem. This is true of every scientist around the world who is trying to improve testing procedures.”
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The exact recipe for the formula has not been made public, except to say the ingredients are cheap because Al-Zyoud and his colleagues want to patent it first.
“It’s not about being selfish and keeping it to himself,” says Al-Zyoud’s former mentor Rana Dajani, president of the Society for the Advancement of Science and Technology in the Arab World and professor of molecular cell biology at the Hashemite University in Jordan. “Imagine if they gave it for free to the whole world then Jordan ended having to buy it back from large companies.”
That sentiment is echoed by Zughaier. “Existing kits are expensive and made by pharmaceutical companies for profit,” she says. “It’s important that innovation from low- and middle-income countries like Jordan shouldn’t be extracted for profit elsewhere.”
“The faster you collect real-time data, the faster you tackle the pandemic.”Fadi El-Jardali
A professor of health policy and systems at the American University of Beirut
Al-Zyoud has already offered the technology to the Jordanian government to be used free of charge, but any details of such an arrangement have yet to be discussed in detail.
Jordan has begun easing its severe lockdown which largely appears to have contained the virus, but is continuing to keep schools and universities closed and to have a night curfew. As of May 6, the Jordanian Ministry of Health reported that the kingdom has experienced 473 confirmed cases of Covid-19. Fifty-eight people were under treatment, 377 had recovered, and nine had died from the disease, the ministry said. (See a related article, “Jordan’s Tight Covid-19 Lockdown Also Squeezes Vulnerable Populations.”)
The Importance of Testing
Addressing the shortages and other issues surrounding testing will become increasingly important as the pandemic progresses, says Zughaier. It will allow countries to manage the spread of the disease until an effective vaccine is developed.
“Testing is very important for a new virus like this. From a public health point of view, we need to know how it spreads because it helps you manage things before they get worse,” she says. (See a related article, “Public Health Experts Are Often Missing From Arab World’s Coronavirus Battle.”)
“The faster you collect real-time data, the faster you tackle the pandemic,” says Fadi El-Jardali, a professor of health policy and systems at the American University of Beirut and director of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Centre for Evidence-Informed Policy and Practice.
“It’s how countries will know when to introduce and when to lift lockdown measures,” says Zughaier.
But for that kind of real-time, data-driven response to come to fruition, testing technologies and logistics need to be improved, made cheaper and scaled up. The only way this will happen is through innovation and research, says Dajani, and the global community should pay attention to expertise and developments around the world—not just in high-income countries.
“It’s good for this latest advancement in testing to be known about,” says Dajani. “Because it highlights that the region has great scientists who can do good stuff. If you look at a lot of news on coronavirus, it’s only about what’s happening in the U.S. and the U.K.,” she adds. “Our region isn’t getting enough attention when it should be.”