Tunisia’s Covid-19 Research Effort Brings Together Many Sectors

/ 05 May 2020

Tunisia’s Covid-19 Research Effort Brings Together Many Sectors

TUNIS—While Tunisia’s schools and universities have been closed as part of the lockdown measures to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, some academic institutions continue to work in search of solutions and tools in response to the outbreak.

The National School of Engineering in Sousse and the Faculty of Medicine in the same city, a which is 90 miles south of the capital, Tunis, have launched a program to encourage students to conduct research related to the manufacture of ventilators for people infected with Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

“We seek to motivate students to engage in science and knowledge with all the country’s institutions to counter the virus outbreak,” said Aref al-Meddab, director of the engineering school. “Classrooms are closed, but that does not mean halting science and research.”

The ventilator project, which started in mid-March, is called “Yes, We Breathe.”

As of Monday, May 4, the number of people who tested positive for Covid-19 in Tunisia was just over 1,000, according to statistics from the Ministry of Health, while the number of deaths reached 42. Like other countries, Tunisia fears that the number of infected persons will increase and that the demand for ventilators and other equipment will rise beyond what public hospitals can provide.

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“Today all borders are closed, which prevents us from importing the equipment we need,” said Habib Fathallah, adviser to the Office of the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research.

“Even if the borders were open, every country will prefer to keep equipment for its people,” said Fathallah, whose ministry has encouraged universities to participate seriously in efforts to cope with the virus. “Therefore we, in the ministry, bet on our students and researchers as our real capital to combat the virus.”

Wide Participation

Since the “Yes, we breathe” program was launched, a large number of students have asked to participate, even if from a distance.

“The program is a great opportunity and a unique experience for us as students, despite the lockdown conditions,” said Salma el-Wardi, a second-year engineering student at the National School of Engineering. “However, with our teachers we managed to form a virtual working group and we succeeded within ten days in designing a 3D model for medical masks and a prototype for a ventilator,” she said.

“We seek to motivate students to engage in science and knowledge with all the country’s institutions to counter the virus outbreak.”

Aref al-Meddab   Director of the National School of Engineering in Sousse

El-Wardi feels extremely happy to participate in the project, which she says brings back to university research the role it deserves. “Our research is no longer just research papers piled on library shelves,” she said.

Students work under the supervision of their professors, who also seem eager to work despite the difficulties created by the lockdown.

“We are trying to divide the work into groups to abide by the curfew decision and avoid getting infected,” said Ahmed Freikha, a university professor at the National School of Engineering in Sfax, which joined the program later on. “This way, a small group works in the laboratory with all necessary preventive measures taken, and another group works remotely. We meet continuously online to consult and discuss business developments,” he added.

The Pasteur Institute Laboratory in Tunis, one of the labs in Tunisia doing Covid-19 testing, is processing more than 300 tests a day, both from at-home swabbing kits and from local doctors (Photo: Jdidi Wassim/Sipa via AP Images).
The Pasteur Institute Laboratory in Tunis, one of the labs in Tunisia doing Covid-19 testing, is processing more than 300 tests a day, both from at-home swabbing kits and from local doctors (Photo: Jdidi Wassim/Sipa via AP Images).

To date, a prototype for a mobile ventilator has been developed to help Covid-19 patients breathe while on the move in an ambulance. To ensure the feasibility of the research, industrial experts were contacted to ensure that it could be implemented, and discussions were held with doctors to ensure that the prototype was appropriate to the patients’ medical needs.

Work is also underway to design a ventilator for use in intensive care units.

The program prompted other universities, with the ministry’s encouragement, to join, as the medical and engineering colleges in Monastir, Sfax, and Tunis announced their participation in the research to manufacture devices that will help save the lives of people living with Covid-19 and protect the medical staff.

Combined Efforts

Today, there are around 100 scientific research initiatives in Tunisia that bring together about 1,000 researchers who are constantly working to provide solutions that help counter the virus, according to Fathallah, the adviser to the minister of higher education and scientific research.

“The Ministry of Health sends periodic reports on hospital needs to the Ministry of Education to address universities and direct them to work based on these needs,” he said. “The challenge is great, but the enthusiasm of students and teachers is greater.”

The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research has also launched a website where researchers can check the national needs and submit proposals for projects they’d like to work on. The ministry has allocated 2.5 million dinars (about $860,000) as a budget for this project, according to Fathallah.

“This way, a small group works in the laboratory with all necessary preventive measures taken, and another group works remotely. We meet continuously online to consult and discuss business developments.”

Ahmed Freikha   A university professor at the National School of Engineering in Sfax

Industry leaders and investors are also interested in supporting this research financially. Mohammed ben Hamida, an industrialist who founded an engineering company and is a sponsor of the National School of Engineering in Sfax, is one of them.

“I am connected to this college because I am one of its graduates,” said ben Hamida. “So when the university contacted me asking for help in providing raw materials, I never hesitated to respond.”

The Hedi Bouchamaoui Foundation, a charitable arm of the HBG Holding investment group that supports education and cultural projects, also supports the research initiative. In a statement, the foundation said that “its adoption of the project is a wager on higher education and scientific research to provide the necessary urgent needs for the health system in Tunisia, as the issue today has become a matter of national security.”

Ben Hamida believes that the coronavirus pandemic has provided a great opportunity to reconsider the importance of mobilizing local efforts and the coordination of academic, public and private institutions to support scientific research. “The will to do this exists among industrialists, but the political will is lacking,” he said. “It is not possible to talk about overlapping and complimentary work between universities and industrial institutions without having a state’s vision and coordination,” he added.

Ben Hamida hopes that this cooperation will continue in the future and not stop when the crisis ends.

“Universities need to develop their research fields, in exchange for the money that we used to pay for importing expertise from abroad,” he said. “A large part of this investment can be used in research, to benefit us and the economy as a whole later.”

Ben Hamida’s wishes correspond to those of Mohammed, the engineering student.

“This is an opportunity to restore consideration for scientific research,” she said. “I hope that this will continue in the future.”




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