Image: Mahmud Hossain Opu/Al Jazeera

Bangladeshi scientists invent $3 COVID test

“Our chief scientist Bijon Kumar Sheel in the nineties worked for the government. After retirement, he became quite renowned as a researcher in Singapore. He was the one to make the kit to detect SARS. China bought the patent from him.” – Zafrullah Chowdhury

Editor’s note: হ্যাঁ এই নতুন আবিষ্কারের মধ্যে অনেক “কিন্তু” আছে, কিন্তু সমান পরিমাণ “কিন্তু” নিয়েই পশ্চিমা বৈজ্ঞানিকরা অনেক প্রতিজ্জ্ঞা করছে। এবং যেকোনো বিজ্ঞানের লড়াইয়ে এই আংশিক আবিষ্কারের ধাপ গুলো অসম্পূর্ণ হলেও, শেষ গন্তব্যের নিশানা দেয়। গণস্বাস্থ্য কেন্দ্র অতি পরিচিত, গণবিশ্ববিদ্যালয় অতটা না। সাভারের কাছেই অদ্ভুত এক পরিবেশ, খুব কম মূলধন দিয়েই বড় মাপের কাজ চলছে সেখানে। সেই গণবিশ্ববিদ্যালয় থেকেই ডাঃ বিজন কুমার শিল-এর নেতৃত্বে গবেষকের দল এই কাজটা করেছে। 

Zafrullah Chowdhury, founder trustee of Gonosasthaya Kendra, spoke in an interview with Prothom Alo on Sunday, about the coronavirus pandemic, the Gonosasthaya test kit and how to tackle the crisis.

Q: How effective will Gonosasthaya’s innovation be in detecting COVID-19?

Zafrullah Chowdhury: Our chief scientist Bijon Kumar Sheel in the nineties worked for the government. After retirement, he became quite renowned as a researcher in Singapore. He was the one to make the kit to detect SARS. China bought the patent from him. Last December after the Wuhan outbreak took place, he and his team (Dr Nahid, Dr Zamir and Dr Firoz) were quick to discern the seriousness of the problem. Towards the beginning of March they concluded that they could detect those infected with COVID-19.

There is a difference between the PCR (polymer chain reaction) which is presently being used, and the Gonosashtaya Rapid Dot Blot. Through the PCR method, if anyone has been affected by coronavirus, it can be detected immediately. Our kit takes some time, only detecting the presence of COVID-19 after 72 hours of the virus entering the body.

However, price-wise our kit is very affordable. In the PCR method, the test for one person including the kit coasts around Tk 12,000 to Tk 13,000. Testing by our method costs Tk 250 only and we hope to be able to market it at this price. Again, it takes a few days to get the PCR test results. Our kit can give the test results in less than 15 minutes.

Q: How has the reaction been to this kit at home and abroad? How much would it cost if it wasn’t duty-free?

Zafrullah Chowdhury: CDC, Atlanta and a number of other foreign agencies have contacted us by email. We are ready to cooperate with everyone. The National Board of Revenue has agreed to allow us to import equipment free of duty. I must applaud this decision of the government. Without duty-free facilities, a kit would cost Tk 500. But we don’t want to add any profit margin to this.

Q: So why will only Gonosashthaya make this then? Will you share the formula with the government, the private sector and other interested pharmaceutical companies?

Zafrullah Chowdhury: Of course. Our stance is very clear. We will welcome anyone of the government or private sector who comes forward to market the kit on the condition that they don’t fix the price at their own will. The government must fix the price under the 1982 drug control act. We will be able to market the kit in one month’s time, though perhaps we won’t be able to manufacture more than 100,000 kits per month. The monthly demand is much more so we want the government to come forward to manufacture the kits.

Full Interview at Prothom Alo

Al Jazeera: Bangladesh scientists create $3 kit. Can it help detect COVID-19?

A group of scientists in Bangladesh has developed a $3 testing kit they claim can detect coronavirus in less than 15 minutes. The South Asian nation’s pharmaceutical regulator – the Directorate General of Drug Administration (DGDA) – gave its green light for the mass production of the kit last Thursday, saying it would ease the pressure on the pathology services struggling with coronavirus detection.

The kit developed by Bangladesh’s Gonoshasthaya-RNA Biotech Limited is similar to one developed in January by scientists in China as the coronavirus outbreak intensified in the Chinese province of Hubei. A report by The Guardian said the Australian regulatory authority “urgently approved four Australian companies” to import the testing kit developed by the Chinese scientists after those companies sought to supply it into the Australian market.

Some experts say that because the kit looks for antibodies produced by the white blood cells in response to the virus rather than the virus itself, there is a margin of error where it could return a false negative if used at the wrong time. The standard laboratory test for coronavirus is known as reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), which detects the virus’s genome rather than antibodies produced to fight it

Dr. Bijon Kumar Sil, Dept of Microbiology, Gono Bishwabidyalay, Bangladesh
Dr. Bijon Kumar Sil, Dept of Microbiology, Gono Bishwabidyalay, Bangladesh

“Coronavirus or any types of virus enter the body through the nose, mouth or eyes, then attaches to cells in the throat that produce a protein. But as the infection progresses inside the human cell, the human immune system at one stage produces specific antibody in blood to fight against the specific virus. Antibodies are one of the key weapons against viruses in our immune system’s arsenal. Our dot blot test detects the specific antibody in the blood created by the white blood cell in response to coronavirus.”
– Dr Bijon Kumar Sil, leader of the Bangladeshi research team

Dr Sil invented a similar kit for detecting the SARS coronavirus while working in Singapore during the outbreak of the respiratory disease in 2003. The Chinese government later bought the patent of the kit he developed as it was proven to be effective in detecting the SARS coronavirus “in most cases”.

“The best part of this rapid kit is it’s cheap (approximately $3) to produce unlike the RT-PCR testing kit which one is expensive,” he said.

Dr Md Shajedur Rahman Shawon, researcher at Centre for Big Data Research in Health, University of New South Wales in Australia, however, said ‘dot blot test’ has its disadvantages. Shawon said the rapid kit looks for antibodies in the blood produced in response to infection by coronavirus, whereas the RT-PCR looks for the virus itself (through RNA extraction) in respiratory specimens. “Since the rapid test relies on the presence of a sufficient amount of antibodies in the blood, factors like timing of the test, previous infections, immune status of a person, cross-reaction with other antigens, can produce false results,” he said.

Full Al Jazeera report here

Gonoshasthaya Kendra is facing uncertainty over the availability of raw material needed for the production of coronavirus testing kits, due to the seven-day flight suspensions between Bangladesh and the UK. “We are considering an alternative route – from England via china to Bangladesh…Our workforce is on standby. As soon as we get the raw material, we will go into production…It was difficult to make international transactions, since bank operations are open for only two hours… We are ready to immediately supply at least 20,000 units of Covid-19 testing kits within a day after getting the official approval for sales”
– Zafrullah Chowdhury

Suspended flights cause delay to Gonoshasthaya testing-kit production

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