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Saudi Universities Step Up Support for Research on Coronaviruses

Despite its economic impact and health drawbacks, the Covid-19 pandemic has encouraged many Saudi university research centers to pay more attention and devote more support to public health and epidemiological research, which had been declining over the past few years.

Some of the kingdom’s university research centers have announced generous financial support for projects that focus on better understanding transmission patterns of SARS-CoV-2, as the virus that causes Covid-19 is formally known, and hence assist in the development of rapid diagnostic and bioinformatics tools to help track the disease’s spread and progression. (See a related article, “Health and Economic Crises Threaten Arab Funding for Research.”)

Among these research projects is a major effort promoted by Community Jameel, an international organization that supports innovation in science and technology. In April, the organization launched the Jameel Fund for Infectious Disease Research and Innovation in Saudi Arabia to combat diseases caused by coronaviruses, including Covid-19, Middle East respiratory syndrome, also known as MERS, and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

“We aim to support new discoveries that can help prevent, detect and diagnose coronaviruses, such as Covid-19, MERS and SARS, through a framework that considers collaboration among researchers and accelerates the development of clinical solutions to treat a group of infectious diseases prevalent in the Gulf region and globally,” said George Richards, director of Community Jameel, in a phone call.

The project, which will be overseen by a joint committee composed of representatives from King Abdulaziz University and Imperial College London, aims in its first round to support research focused on the transmission and causes of coronaviruses.

Future rounds of the research project will target other diseases, according to Richards. The first-round projects will last from six months up to a year, he added.

Multiple Collaborations

The Arabian Peninsula has always been one of the world’s most epidemic-prone areas. It has witnessed widespread epidemics like plague, smallpox and influenza that have claimed the lives of thousands of people over the past centuries.

“We aim to support new discoveries that can help prevent, detect and diagnose coronaviruses, such as Covid-19, MERS and SARS.”

George Richards
 Director of Community Jameel

Upon recording the first cases of Covid-19 in Saudi Arabia, Community Jameel launched a fund at Imperial College to support research on the new coronavirus. It also provided financial support for the manufacture of personal protective equipment using artificial intelligence, to design face masks.

In another collaboration involving Community Jameel and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a research team at the Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning in Health at MIT used deep learning and artificial intelligence to identify promising therapeutic compounds to be used against Covid-19 and the secondary pneumonia that many Covid-19 patients develop. The Jameel Clinic at MIT is led by professors Regina Barzilay and James Collins and headed by the 1993 Nobel laureate Phillip Sharp.

In Saudi Arabia, “the project focuses on infectious diseases, especially those related to coronaviruses, and all their related diagnostic or therapeutic research,” Adeel Chaudhary, a professor of molecular biology at King Abdulaziz University and the general supervisor of the research project, said in a phone call. He explained that researchers working on the project have submitted about 35 proposals.

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About 100 researchers from King Saud University are participating in the project. However, the team has not yet identified specific geographic areas to conduct its first experiments.

Breakthroughs by Saudi Researchers

Before the launch of this research project, researchers at King Abdulaziz University managed to isolate the novel coronavirus on cells for the first time in Saudi Arabia, and developed an anti-Covid-19 vaccine project, which has passed more than one testing stage.

The virus was isolated by employing molecular biology technology based on five different protocols announced by the World Health Organization, besides extracting the virus’s DNA from one of the reference laboratories cooperating with the Saudi researchers, according to Esam Azhar, head of the Special Infectious Agents Unit at the King Fahd Medical Research Center at King Abdulaziz University.

After that initial step, the research team led by Azhar extracted the first sample from a patient at the University Hospital. It was diagnosed by molecular biology technology, and cultured on living tissues in a Biosafety Level 3 laboratory.

“We will soon move to the stage of finding treatments and diagnostic tools, besides developing plans and strategies to limit the spread of epidemic diseases.”

Esam Azhar
Head of the Special Infectious Agents Unit at the King Fahd Medical Research Center at King Abdulaziz University

Azhar hopes that these research discoveries, and cooperation with Community Jameel, will encourage the private sector to establish partnerships with King Abdulaziz University in various fields.

Partnerships with Foreign Universities

Besides renewing interest in research projects on epidemics and viruses, Saudi universities have intensified the completion of partnership agreements with foreign universities in these research areas, which they believe have greatly helped them to develop their skills and raise the quality of results.

King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or KAUST, represented by its Rapid Research Response Team–Covid-19, formed a partnership with the University of Oxford after the outbreak of the pandemic to develop faster diagnostic methods, such as creating a biosensor for rapid detection of the novel coronavirus. (See a related article, “Jordanian Researchers Create a Cheaper, Faster Coronavirus Test.”)

The Saudi research team also succeeded in developing an immunodiagnostic test aimed at detecting antibodies to the virus.

“The test works by drawing a small amount of blood and placing it on a test strip,” Charlotte Hauser, the head of the Division of Bioengineering at KAUST, said in a news release. “If antibodies are present in the blood, they will directly bind to the virus proteins that are specific to them, and this specific binding is made visible by a color reaction.”

Azhar stresses that partnerships with foreign universities are essential for achieving the strategic goals of sustainable development, which positively affects the quality and development of therapeutic and diagnostic services and enhances cooperation among institutions to hone outstanding expertise.

The Saudi academic believes that research projects in the field of viruses and epidemics in the kingdom will witness a qualitative leap in terms of their results and quality.

“We will soon move to the stage of finding treatments and diagnostic tools, besides developing plans and strategies to limit the spread of epidemic diseases,” he said.

Related Reading

To learn more about the novel coronavirus in the Arab region and its effects on education, research, the arts and culture, see a collection of articles from Al-Fanar Media.


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