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Across the Arab Region, Covid-19 Has Scrambled Scientists’ Plans

Many scientists in the Middle East have repurposed their expertise in fields as diverse as nanotechnology, air pollution and population health to focus on the coronavirus pandemic. Many have also used their “lockdown time” to catch up on administrative tasks, write up articles from data they already have and are beginning to make plans to reopen their laboratories.

Research facilities usually had to close down under lockdown rules in numerous countries, meaning scientists, like many office workers, were unable to get into their workplaces.

But many academics launched new projects from home to apply their expertise to tackling Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, and measure the ways it is impacting day-to-day life.

“It’s delightful to see the number of scientists who got on board to see how they could help,” says Susu Zughaier, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Qatar University.

“Researchers don’t have to be medical experts to have something to contribute in these times,” says Zughaier. “Everyone’s efforts are the blessing in disguise to have come out of Covid-19.”

A Change in the Air in Beirut

In Lebanon, Najat Saliba is a professor of chemistry at the American University of Beirut who studies the regionwide issue of urban pollution (See a related article: “An Arab Researcher Seeks Solutions to Urban Pollution.”) She originally used the lockdown to play catch up with administrative tasks before realizing the virus wasn’t going anywhere fast.

“The lab work slowed down at first and then came to a complete stop during the peak,” she says. “However, our desk work continued where analysis of lab results, paper reviews and write-ups were intensified.”

She wasn’t alone. “I had been accumulating data that I was always too busy to work on,” says Jumana Saleh, a professor of biochemistry at Sultan Qaboos University, in Oman. “This is a great opportunity to sit and analyze data and write manuscripts,” she says. But some editors have replied to her saying that they’re inundated with submissions. “Many journals are overwhelmed with manuscripts sent to them during this crisis, so it’s not only me.”

In Beirut, Saliba was reading reports of improved air quality around the world as a result of the downturn in industrial activity and road traffic. She soon began to scrutinize this trend in Lebanon by using satellite imagery along with other air quality indicators.

The investigation is still going on, but “based on our interpretation of the situation in Lebanon, the decrease was not as steep as it was in other countries because of the extensive use of diesel generators, which is estimated to contribute to up to 40 percent of the country’s pollution,” she says.

“The lab work slowed down at first and then came to a complete stop during the peak. However, our desk work continued where analysis of lab results, paper reviews and write-ups were intensified.”

Najat Saliba  
A professor of chemistry at the American University of Beirut

Additionally, during the lockdown there were a several days of wind coming from the Arabian desert, which brought sand and other fine particles to Lebanon—this reduced air quality and made it harder to quantify the beneficial side-effects of the lockdown on pollution levels.

“The answer is not clear-cut, but of course the visibility did improve tremendously and the cars, which were completely absent from the streets, contributed substantially to a decrease of air pollution over Beirut,” says Saliba.

The ‘Microbiome’ and Coronovirus

Walid Al-Zyoud is the head of the biomedical engineering department at German Jordanian University, just outside of Amman. Before the pandemic, he was investigating the genetic material of the viruses, fungi and bacteria that live inside the human body, collectively known as the microbiome. “My research aimed to characterize the microbiome of the Jordanian population to understand its role in immunity and nutrition,” he says. However, when the coronavirus emerged and there was a global rush to secure supplies of testing kits, he developed a new test that was both faster and cheaper to produce. (See a related article, “Jordanian Researchers Create a Cheaper, Faster Coronavirus Test.”)

Once the dust has settled, he plans to go back to the microbiome, but will still include the coronavirus. “There is a link between my microbiome studies and Covid-19 studies,” he says. He intends to look at how the virus has affected the microbiome.

In Egypt, the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and the institutions that work with it have set aside nearly 70 million Egyptian pounds ($4.4 million) to find ways to reduce the effects of the pandemic. “The academy has an existing research map, but we are in an exceptional circumstance that requires allocating part of the funding and directing it to research purposes that serve the current situation,” said Mahmoud Sakr, president of the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology. (See a related article, “Egypt Hopes to Strengthen Scientific Research Through ‘Science Up’.”)

“The academy has an existing research map, but we are in an exceptional circumstance that requires allocating part of the funding and directing it to research purposes that serve the current situation.”

Mahmoud Sakr  
President of Egypt’s Academy of Scientific Research and Technology

Mohamed Salama, associate professor at the Institute of Global Health and the Human Environment at the American University in Cairo, is working on a longitudinal scientific study of 50,000 Egyptians over 10 years. He and his colleagues are monitoring tissue samples from those participating in the study with the goal of studying aging, the changes in the population’s health, life expectancy and how the participants are served by the nation’s health system.

With some precautions, Salama can get to campus laboratories but he is having difficulty getting samples from patients, since the doctors and hospitals that usually provide them are under pressure from the pandemic and the patients themselves are worried about any unnecessary contact.

Training and Testing in Doha

Before the Covid-19 crisis, Zughaier, in Qatar, was studying the use of nanotechnology to screen for specific bacteria in post-surgery patients. The aim of this project is to detect infections early, when the pathogen’s numbers are still small. Traditional methods require a tissue sample to be sent to a lab, where the bacteria have to be cultured and tested. “That can take two to 13 days,” she says. “This sensor doesn’t wait for the bacteria to grow.”

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Zughaier has conducted a “proof of concept” study for a nanotechnology-based test, but the research has effectively been put on hold. “Shutting a lab isn’t easy. We had to discuss what samples should be kept in the freezer and what should be discarded,” she says. “It takes a couple of days to close a lab.”

From home, Zughaier decided to write up manuscripts that would analyze previously collected results. “But soon enough the number of Covid-19 cases started to rise in Qatar,” she says. “Academics like myself have volunteered to run online training sessions with volunteers from the general public who are helping vulnerable people who are isolating in their homes.”

Zughaier is also coordinating Covid-19-related research, building on Qatar University’s capacity to make and conduct antibody tests, which indicate whether a person has previously been infected by the virus. “At the beginning of Covid-19 there was an issue with diagnostics,” she says. “Many scientists, not just me, started gearing our research towards capacity building for testing.” The government in Doha has since sufficiently increased its own capacity for testing, she says, but the university wants to keep its testing labs active as a fall back for the Ministry of Health.

Zughaier isn’t the only one whose research skills have been repurposed. Before the pandemic, Hassan Chami, an associate professor of internal medicine at the American University of Beirut, was conducting a study on the health effects of shisha smoking and changes in smokers’ lungs that make them vulnerable to cancer.

“We shifted focus in March when we started having (Covid-19) cases in Lebanon,” he says. Now he is investigating the differences between the Covid-19 transmission rates of intensive care wards and regular hospital wards, to highlight potential areas for improvement.

Easing Lockdowns

In many parts of the Arab world, lockdowns are beginning to ease. Researchers are starting to look at restarting their mothballed projects. “Starting this week, we’re allowed to resume duties while abiding with safety rules,” says Saleh, from Oman. “There are penalties for not wearing a mask.”

Unfortunately for a lot of lab-based research projects, it’s not simply a case of heading back to work and picking up where they left off. It can take a long time to culture the right kinds of bacteria and other biological samples—a certain amount of time has to be spent on re-doing what was destroyed in the process of closing the labs down.

“We’re on standby to reopen once we get the green light,” says Zughaier. “It will probably take about two weeks to jump up the process, get the cells growing and get to a place where the workflow can happen.”

She is also worried she will have just about managed to get the laboratory up and running, to then be interrupted again by the summer holiday when students and lab technicians will flee the Qatari heat. “The work requires momentum and there’s a question of how fast we can regain that during the summer break; very few people will be around,” she says.

Tarek Abd El-Galil contributed to this article.


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