Bill Gates’s Heroes Dr Senjuti Saha confirmed; “We completed genome sequencing of the virus a few hours ago,”
The good news came late last evening in a press release provided by CHRF. SARS Cov-2 is the coronavirus that causes Covid-19.
A team from Child Health Research Foundation (CHRF) has successfully completed the genome sequencing of the SARS Cov-2 virus in Bangladesh.
“We completed genome sequencing of the virus a few hours ago,” confirmed Dr Senjuti Saha, the scientist who led the team of three. Other members of the team are: Roly Malaker and Md Saiful Islam Shajib. Dr Senjuti’s father, eminent microbiologist and executive director of the organisation Dr Samir Kumar Saha, also gave leadership to the team.
Genome sequencing is the process of identifying what nucleotides — the basic building block of DNA and RNA — are present in a certain cell and in what order.
“The SARS Cov-2 virus cells contains RNA. RNA is made of four bases or ‘letters’ — A (adenine), U (uracil), G (guanine), and C (cytosine). The virus is made up of about 29,000 letters and we had to figure out what the sequence was,” explained Dr Senjuti.
As of right now they have only finished the genome sequencing of one sample, and plan to do around 80, she added.
“We have been working on this for over a month, but the actual work of sequencing was done over 4 days,” said an excited Dr Senjuti.
“In addition, the biologists working on the genome sequencing also had a full 8-hour shift, testing samples from patients. We did not want patients to suffer while we tried to do genome sequencing. So all the work was done after hours,” she said, speaking to this correspondent from Cambridge in England in the early hours of today, where she has been stuck because of the closing of borders.
“To make things harder, because I had come to Cambridge in mid-March and got stuck here, the collaboration had to be remote. My team in CHRF literally had to set up a camera in the space where they were doing the sequencing, so that I could see what was happening,” described Dr Senjuti.
While scientists in Bangladesh have done genome sequencing of jute and hilsa (both of which have DNA), genome sequencing of cells containing RNA is a rare feat.
“Up until now, we usually had to send our samples abroad for sequencing and analysis. But with help with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we were able to purchase a sequencer and since before the pandemic hit, we had been practising and teaching our staff to sequence influenza viruses,” said Dr Senjuti.
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR THE FUTURE
Doing genome sequencing of the virus means that scientists can begin to understand which strain it is, which country it came from, and when it came to Bangladesh.
“This will help us make predictions for the future — when will we hit the peak?” explained Dr Senjuti. There are around 16,000 genome sequencing of this virus already done worldwide, that Bangladesh can compare against, she explained.
In addition, this means that vaccines can be explored. “Vaccines are being developed in other countries, but how do we know they will work for Bangladesh unless we know what the strain of the virus we have?” she said.
“We have also uploaded the results on an open-access database and hope that vaccine-makers will be able to see it and incorporate that into their vaccines,” said Dr Senjuti.
The scientist has also made the sequencing protocol public and hopes that other laboratories around the country can train themselves and start sequencing samples.
“We assume that each month two ‘letters’ in the RNA mutate, which means this virus is constantly mutating. Therefore sequencing too, needs to be a constant process,” she said.
Besides, having a group trained in genome sequencing can prevent the next pandemic in Bangladesh.
Dr Senjuti said that this would not have been possible if Directorate General of Health Services ( DGHS) had not given them samples to test.
Bangladesh’s dynamic duo battle global health inequity
As a little girl growing up in Bangladesh, Senjuti Saha remembers how dinner conversations in her family often focused on bacteria, viruses, and infectious diseases.
Those topics might strike many people as a little gross at mealtime, but in the Saha family that’s what happened when her father, Dr. Samir Saha, brought his work home. A professor of microbiology, Samir used family dinner to practice his scientific lectures or share what he was learning about Bangladesh’s health challenges. (I wish I could have had a seat at the table—I love learning about diseases!)
Those conversations had a big impression on Senjuti, who went on to become a microbiologist herself. Dr. Senjuti Saha now works with her father at the Child Health Research Foundation (CHRF), an organization he helped found to reduce child mortality in Bangladesh and other countries.
Together, the father–daughter team are a dynamic duo of global health. They are working to close the gap in healthcare delivery between low-income countries, where child mortality is high, and wealthier countries, by using data, state-of-the-art diagnostics, and vaccines to battle infectious diseases. Their research is not only being used in Bangladesh, but by other countries in South Asia facing similar health challenges.
Thanks to the work of the CHRF, along with strong support for childhood immunization and health care by the government, Bangladesh continues to push down its under-5 mortality rate and improve overall healthcare delivery. Vaccine coverage in Bangladesh, a country of 170 million people, has now reached 98 percent.
Samir, who also heads the department of microbiology at the Dhaka Shishu Hospital in Dhaka, played an instrumental role in helping Bangladesh introduce vaccines for meningitis and pneumonia, two major childhood killers. While those vaccines were available in the U.S. and other rich countries, they were not in low-income countries like Bangladesh. Working diligently to document the burden of these diseases, Samir provided the data and evidence to convince public health policymakers to support the rollout of both vaccines, which have already prevented thousands of deaths.
Senjuti focuses on finding simpler ways to diagnose mysterious illnesses in poor countries that affect newborns and children. In 2017, when there was an unexplained spike in meningitis cases among children in Bangladesh, Senjuti was able to unravel the mystery by analyzing the genetic material of the children. (The meningitis cases, she discovered, were caused by an outbreak of Chikungunya fever, a virus spready by mosquitos.) But in order to get to the bottom of the mystery, she had to fly the samples to the U.S. for analysis. She’s since set up a low-cost diagnostic tool in Bangladesh to help the country quickly address future outbreaks of meningitis and other deadly diseases.
The information that the Sahas are gathering from their research is critical for Bangladesh, which lacks many of the resources needed to diagnose and treat illnesses. The data CHRF gathers is helping to inform government policy decisions for the most effective ways to combat diseases. It is also being used to design new vaccines.
Even as conditions improve in Bangladesh, however, the country has a long way to go. Speaking at this year’s Goalkeepers event, Senjuti shared a powerful story that captured the huge health challenges that remain in Bangladesh. At Dhaka Shishu Hospital, Bangladesh’s largest pediatric facility, more than 6,000 children are refused admission every year because its 665 beds are always full, and many of the beds are occupied by people suffering from preventable diseases. Many of the children turned away need immediate care.
If Bangladesh can do more to prevent diseases, however, it can free up resources to focus more on the illnesses that can’t be prevented. Thanks to the work of Samir and Senjuti, Bangladesh is moving toward a future of fewer infectious diseases and more available hospital beds.