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Arab institutions ramp up COVID-19 research

Published online 4 June 2020

Researchers in Arab institutions have joined the global effort to understand, monitor, test and control the spread of COVID-19.

Rieko Kawabata, with additional reporting from Pakinam Amer

CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS
While countries around the world have started implementing phased exit strategies following national lockdowns, many Arab countries are still witnessing rising numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Scientists across the region are joining the global effort to understand the transmission patterns of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and to improve capacities for effective testing, prevention, control and treatment of the infection. 

Cardiac electrophysiologist, Alawi Alsheikh-Ali, is uniquely positioned to study travel-related spread of COVID-19. He and his team at Mohammed Bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences in Dubai, one of the world’s busiest aviation hubs, analysed viral genetic data from the first patients to test positive with COVID-19 in the city, in addition to studying their travel histories. Their analyses1  suggest multiple introductions of SARS-CoV-2 into the United Arab Emirates from Asia, Europe and the Middle East, leading to the emergence of several distinct clusters during the early phases of the outbreak. They also found mutations and novel amino acid changes in the virus samples that should be investigated to understand their effect on the virus’s pathogenicity, the researchers say. Similar analyses from other countries could help reveal the global patterns of spread of the pandemic, says Alsheikh-Ali. 

In Kuwait, molecular pathologist, Fahd Al-Mulla, and his colleagues at the Dasman Institute found2  two variations in the ACE2 gene that could make Europeans more susceptible to COVID-19 infection compared with people from the Middle East. One of these variations might facilitate the binding of SARS-CoV-2 to the ACE2 receptor on human cells, while another could be enhancing viral entry into the cells. The scientists also found potentially protective variations in the FURIN gene, which is involved in facilitating viral entry, that were more common in people in Kuwait and Qatar. Al-Mulla says it is possible these variations, amongst others, might help explain the apparently different COVID-19 mortality rates between continents, and are worthy of further investigation. 

Many institutes recognise that getting a handle on COVID-19 requires an interdepartmental, coordinated strategy. At King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), Saudi Arabia, the Rapid Research Response Team COVID-19 is working on developing rapid diagnostics and bioinformatics tools to help track the spread and evolution of the disease. Materials scientist, Thomas Anthopoulos, and his group, for example, make solid-state transistor biosensors, which they say are simple to build and have ultra-high sensitivity. They are repurposing their glucose sensor for the real-time detection of SARS-CoV-2. Anthopoulos says their sensor is nearly one billion times more sensitive than required to detect glucose in human tears. “If we succeed at repurposing our technology for the detection of SARS-CoV-2 with the same sensitivity, this will signify an important milestone in the global effort to combat the new coronavirus outbreak,” he says.

Scientists around the world have been using mathematical modelling to understand the progression of infections in their respective countries and to forecast when they will peak. In Egypt, biostatistician, Eman El Desouky, and her colleagues at Cairo University ran simulations of expected scenarios and estimate3  that their country’s peak could occur by the middle of June. Another scenario, however, suggests the peak could be postponed to as late as 18 July as a result of gatherings of families and friends that occurred during the fasting month of Ramadan between 23 April and 23 May. 

Faced with the challenge of global shortages in diagnostic kits, many institutes are stepping up their efforts to develop kits that extract viral RNA from nasopharyngeal swabs taken from suspected COVID-19 patients. 

The research and pathology departments at Sidra Medicine, Qatar have developed4  an approach that draws on the team’s experience in single-cell RNA extraction and the institute’s robotics infrastructure. Their approach requires fewer reagents and less time compared with others currently on the market. The process takes 60 minutes and can handle up to 96 samples at a time, according to Stephan Lorenz, director of Sidra Medicines Integrated Genomics Services. This, he says, is an improvement on the handling capacity of other methods, while providing comparable sensitivity and specificity. 

Researchers at the Jordanian Society of Genetic Engineers have devised a cost-effective RNA extraction strategy that efficiently uses chemical lysis to open the outer membrane of the virus. Opening this viral envelope is the first step in RNA extraction, and usually involves several rounds of centrifugation using different chemicals, filters and buffering solutions. Some of those chemicals are now in short supply. Genetic engineer, Walid Al-Zyoud, says their extraction kit circumvents this problem by using different chemical reagents, with a short centrifugation step. It could become available, he says, by the beginning of July in North Africa, and by mid-July in the rest of the Middle East. Such kits, he adds, would enable Jordan and other countries to monitor the spread of the disease until an effective vaccine is developed. 

Arab countries, some already in economic and political turmoil, face a unique set of challenges in addressing this pandemic. The studies reported here have not yet undergone peer review, but do indicate a strong level of determination by scientists in the region to add to the global scientific endeavour to stop a killer virus in its tracks.  


  1. Whole genome and phylogenetic analysis of SARS-CoV-2 strains from the index and early patients with COVID-19 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 29 January to 18 March 2020. Preprint: https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.05.06.080606v1.full 
  2. A comprehensive germline variant and expression analyses of ACE2, TMPRSS2 and SARS-CoV-2 activator FURIN genes from the Middle East: Combating SARS-CoV-2 with precision medicine. Preprint: https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.05.16.099176v1 
  3. Prediction of the Epidemic Peak of Covid19 in Egypt, 2020. Preprint: https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.04.30.20086751v1.full.pdf
  4. High-throughput extraction of SARS-CoV-2 RNA from nasopharyngeal swabs using solid-phase reverse immobilization beads. Preprint: https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.04.08.20055731v1.article-metrics