Coronavirus: Inside the Abu Dhabi lab helping to lead the fight against Covid-19

Researchers and scientists surf wave of collaboration as health institutions unite to combat pandemic

Inside a UAE lab that tests for coronavirus

Inside a UAE lab that tests for coronavirus
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At a laboratory nestled deep inside the new Burjeel Medical City in Abu Dhabi, scientists are at the forefront of the UAE's fight to contain coronavirus.

It is here that more than a hundred daily tests are carried out in order to identify patients infected with Covid-19.

The results will be used to limit the spread of the pandemic, and help researchers understand more about the previously unknown coronavirus rapidly spreading across the globe.

Medics say divisions between different health sectors have been removed as the entire world - let alone a single country - is united by a common goal.

“This situation has changed the healthcare landscape forever, and for the better,” said Dr Martine Mcmanus, head of pathology and laboratory services at VPS Healthcare, which operates Burjeel Medical City.

“Historically, private and government health sectors have always been separate and independent of each other.

Martine Claire Mc Manus, Consultant, Pathologist Labortary, Burjeel Medical City.
Nursing team from VPS healthcare have been working around the clock for two weeks to test thousands of airline passengers arriving into the UAE for Covid-19.

(Photo: Reem Mohammed/The National)

Dr Martine Mcmanus, consultant pathologist at Burjeel Medical City, is testing hundreds of samples of potential Covid-19 carriers. Reem Mohammed/The National.

“Boundaries that existed between the two sectors have now dissolved and there is a united front by the entire healthcare industry across the country to screen and manage infected patients.

“It is a wonderful opportunity for healthcare in the UAE and I think the effects will outlast the coronavirus pandemic.”

That unity is reflected globally, as researchers in China share genetic sequencing results of Covid-19 in an attempt to track possible mutations and explore vaccine candidates.

"This situation has changed the healthcare landscape forever."

The virus’s entire genome was published online just days after it was identified.

Comparatively, this process took almost three months with the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) coronavirus outbreak effecting more than 8,000 people across 26 countries.

Technological advancements have reduced the cost of next generation gene sequencing, making it easier to examine larger samples to understand how a virus spreads.

While scientific research papers that typically take months to publish are being fast-tracked, as academics share drafts of papers before peer review to encourage information sharing.

Existing drugs used to treat other coronavirus during the SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreaks could also be repurposed to fight the current pandemic.

The latest development at the Japanese Agency for Medical Research and Development is to examine the effectiveness of pancreatitis medication as a potential candidate to prevent transmission of the virus.

Covid testing lab set to open in Burjeel Medical City.
Nursing team from VPS healthcare have been working around the clock for two weeks to test thousands of airline passengers arriving into the UAE for Covid-19.

(Photo: Reem Mohammed/The National)

A pathologist tests a sample taken from a potential carrier of Covid-19 at Burjeel Medical City. Reem Mohammed/The National.

Nafamostat has proved effective at blocking a critical step in the infection process as it passes through its host, and has been effective in treating MERS patients.

Results from tests on existing drugs could take just weeks, rather than many months to develop a new vaccine.

VPS Healthcare is collaborating on a clinical trial of oral Nafamostat as a treatment for Covid-19.

It will be partnering with California-based Ensysce Biosciences and scientists at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute.

“Finding a safe and effective treatment is a pressing health priority,” said Dr. Shamsheer Vayalil, chairman and managing director of VPS Healthcare.

Meanwhile, researchers like Dr Mcmanus at Burjeel Medical City will continue to test thousands of samples from UAE patients to gain a greater understanding of Covid-19.

“Everyone is trying to use their own experiences to help the next infected group of patients,” she said.

“This is unprecedented.

“Previously, there was a certain amount of competition, and that brought secrecy and reluctance to share data and research.”

At the BMC laboratory, Roche analyser machines test more than 100 samples a day.

A more advanced 6800 Cobas diagnostic analyser is expected to be delivered within weeks, ramping up production to about 1,500 daily tests.

The polymerase chain reaction test remains the gold standard in widespread population screening.

It is a DNA amplification technique routinely used in the lab to turn tiny amounts of DNA into large enough quantities to be analysed.

No other tests can yet distinguish the virus that causes Covid-19 from influenza or the other dozen or so respiratory bugs around at this time of year.


“At least for the next few months there will have to be widespread population screening to identify carriers who are infecting others,” said Dr Mcmanus.

“The more testing centres that are approved, and the larger the analysers become to allow us to test higher volumes of samples, the faster we will be able to see result and act accordingly.”