While all the storm was going down, the week emerged as the one where Bangladeshi scientists really started getting on the ball, with several more SARS-CoV-2 genomes sequenced at various labs and submitted to the international database being maintained by the GIS Project. It was only a week ago of course that news had broken of the first such successful attempt, carried out by a team led by Dr Senjuti Saha over at the Child Health Research Foundation.
Some of the other organisations to have come through in the last 7 days and submitted their work to the international database, are now viewable through the website nextstrain.org - which started out as a pet project of Dr Trevor Bedford, the earliest American virologist to have warned of the virus’s entry into their territory, that is cooperating with GIS to allow scientists from across the world to cooperate through an open-source platform.
Dr Samir Kumar Saha is of course the founder and executive director of CHRF, that many may believe only came to the limelight following the first successful genome sequencing of a novel coronavirus sample or strain in Bangladesh - but that would be patently wrong. CHEF is a highly accomplished and dedicated organisation that reflects the brilliance and humanity running through the Saha family (even Mrs Saha is a microbiologist!).
In an interview with our sister newsagency UNB this week, Dr Saha stressed the need for more genome sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 samples, to find out ‘the dominant strain’ and learn about the local mutations of the virus.
The sequencing of a good number of samples will help develop an effective vaccine for the country’s dominant strain and other strains of the coronavirus in the future, he said in an interview with UNB.
A CHRF team, led by scientist Dr Senjuti Saha, also daughter of Prof Samir Saha, unveiled the whole genome sequencing of novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) for the first time in Bangladesh on May 12 last. The entire sequencing work was conducted at the CHRF laboratory in Dhaka.
The foundation has an aim to sequence more samples from different locations of Bangladesh to better understand the spread and transmission patterns of COVID-19 in the country.
“We’ll conduct more research works on it. Though we’re a small organisation and working with a small machine, our ambition is very high,” said Prof Samir Saha, also a professor at the Microbiology department of Dhaka Shishu Hospital.
Talking about the recent success, he said they sequenced the coronavirus sample while going to conduct COVID-19 test after the government asked their foundation to do so as part of ramping up coronavirus testing gradually in the country.
“The genome sequencing of coronavirus is our byproduct. That means we did it in extra time while doing another work. We work with the government though we’re a private organisation. When the government expanded COVID-19 testing gradually, we were also given the responsibility to conduct testing,” he said.
Then the CHRF started getting many samples of different places and was sending the reports to the government after those were tested. “At the same time, we preserved some specimens. It’s also our responsibility,” he added.
The CHRF got the sample, which was sequenced, from a person on April 18, said Dr Samir without giving further details about the person.
Mentioning that no foreigner is involved in the genome sequencing of coronavirus, he said the COVID-19 sequencing team is comprised of young Bangladeshi researchers. Some of the team members have just completed PhDs, while some others are pursuing PhD or will go for PhD courses, he said.
Where did it come from?
The CHRF executive director said though they could not concentrate on the study yet to find out the place where from their sequenced strain entered Bangladesh, they think this virus might have come from the United Kingdom.
“Until now, we think this virus came from the United Kingdom. We’re almost sure about it. But the same strain was seen in Russia, Taiwan and Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Putting emphasis on analysing more samples, the eminent microbiologist said, “When we’ll sequence more samples, we can know the names of the other countries alongside the UK, where from the viruses entered Bangladesh. Everything (finding) is important here. We can also know whether the virus mutates after entering our country and if the mutations improve our situation or deteriorate it.”
Finding a suitable vaccine
Dr Samir Saha said he thinks if even Bangladesh gets a vaccine quickly it would not be before the end of this year or the early next year.
“But we don’t know how many viruses will mutate by this time. If we can sequence some 100 strains, we would be able to know more. If we can sequence a larger number of strains, it would be better,” he said.
“If we do so, then we’ll be able to understand which vaccine will be effective for the virus in our country or whether the vaccine will work against one virus or all viruses in our country. We can say which virus is dominant in our country,” he added.
Citing an example over changing a vaccine against a virus in the course of time, the scientist said the vaccine for influenza is modified almost every year in keeping with the mutations of the flu virus in the USA.
But the same vaccine hs been used for years in Bangladesh as there is no effort to keep up with the local mutations of the influenza virus in this part of the world, Prof Samir added.
He, however, said if all work together then it will be clear which vaccine is needed for influenza in Bangladesh.
About the CHRF, which was established in 2007, Prof Samir said the foundation has been working on genome sequencing for the last two years. “We’ve sequenced Chikungunya virus, pneumonia and influenza viruses, and recently that of dengue,” said Prof Samir Saha, who along with Dr Shahida Hasnain of Pakistan won the 2017 Carlos J. Finlay UNESCO Prize for Microbiology for their outstanding contributions to microbiology and its applications.
Dr Samir K Saha was given the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) Award in 2017 for research in Clinical Microbiology. It is the first time that the awardee was selected from a nation outside the developed world.
Talking about his daughter Dr Senjuti Saha who led the genome sequencing of COVID-19 first in the country, Prof Samir said she went to Canada for higher study on completion O Level and A Level in Bangladesh.
During her 12-year stay in Canada, Senjuti did PhD in Molecular Genetics on completion of under-graduation and graduation there.
After obtaining PhD from the University of Toronto, Dr Senjuti moved back to Bangladesh to pursue a career that brings together basic science and public health. She has been working with the CHRF laboratory team for the last four years.
Her work is grounded in advancing the cause of health and research equity as she believes that everyone across the world should have equal access to the practice and benefits of science.
Dr Senjuti also made a presentation on health and research equity at the Gates Goalkeepers event during the United Nations General Assembly in New York last year.