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Pharma firms help in global virus fight

By ZHENG YIRAN in Beijing and PEI PEI in Shenzhen, Guangdong | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2020-06-23 09:45
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Scientists check samples awaiting tests in the "Huo-Yan laboratory" of genomics sequencing company BGI in Shenzhen, Guangdong province. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Apart from essential medical materials that Chinese pharmaceutical enterprises have been shipping overseas, there are also a number of scientists and technicians who have been sent to virus-hit areas to help in the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

A group of 40 experts from local top-tier universities and research institutes who have been taking training courses in COVID-19 laboratory operations such as lab testing and biosafety checks are working at the Huo-Yan Laboratory in Serbia.

The training was conducted by six young scientists from China's genomics sequencing company BGI Genomics and most had been fighting at the frontline of domestic epidemic prevention and control.

They have continued their work and stepped up overseas efforts, bringing Chinese experience and support to virus-hit areas.

"As we brought BGI's coronavirus testing equipment to Serbia, our main work here is to teach local medical professionals about testing methods and procedures, making sure they can use the equipment in the right way. For final checks, every day I do not leave until the last batch of sample completes testing," said Pei Wen, leader of the BGI team in Serbia's Huo-Yan Laboratory.

"Normally, my work here starts at nine in the morning, and finishes at one the next day. And when I am back in my hotel room, I have to deal with work back in China," Pei said.

When the scientists arrived in Serbia, they were shocked by the conflict of concepts on epidemic and biosafety. Protective clothing and masks were not necessities in some overseas countries.

Zhong Nanshan, a top epidemiologist in China and an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering which is leading the nation's medical experts team in Hubei's fight against the epidemic, emphasized that personal protection is a priority in the fight against the epidemic.

"When Wuhan, Hubei province, was hit by the epidemic, because of the lack in disease awareness and protective equipment, some of our medical professionals didn't protect themselves enough and got infected, giving us a passive role in the initial fight. Therefore, when we are going overseas for assistance, not only should we ourselves get all armed, we should convey the idea of personal protection to our overseas fellows," Zhong said.

As there is potential risk of infection in the COVID-19 nucleic acid tests, safety protection in the lab is extremely important. Masks, protective hats and shoes, protective clothing, the first layer of gloves, protective goggles, and a second layer of gloves are all needed.

"'Getting all armed is so complicated', a local staff once complained. As a result, my colleagues and I helped him get armed, snapping up places that may be ventilated. The regulations on biosafety must be strictly followed in order to be responsible to everybody," Pei said.

"BGI have been sending its employees overseas to offer assistance, and all of them have been reminded time after time that whether it be BGI's employees or local staff, no one shall fall down," said Wang Jian, chairman of BGI.

For the foolproof operation of virus testing experiment, Zeng Xin checks the testing equipment once he has some spare time.

"Normally, the equipment only needs to be tested once. However, as we are overseas, we are representing BGI and China. No mistake is allowed," Zeng said.

Zeng said before their arrival, the local labs extracted the virus samples manually, which was very slow. With BGI's equipment, 192 samples can be extracted in 80 minutes, greatly increasing efficiency.

"The establishment of the laboratory is well worth our efforts," said Ou Rong, a BGI scientist.

Apart from Serbia, BGI has also established the Huo-Yan Laboratory and sent assisting scientists to many other countries and regions. They include the United Arab Emirates, Brunei, Saudi Arabia, Australia, the Philippines, Canada, Gabon and Kazakhstan.

Other Chinese pharmaceutical firms are also sending out assistance. Medical device maker Guangzhou Wondfo Biotech Co sent its technicians to Europe, Latin America and Africa to guide local medical professionals in using testing kits. Beijing Aeonmed also sent technical staff overseas to help local medical experts use ventilators properly.

"Senior technical talents from China have become an important powerful force in the world," said a report from MacroPolo, a think tank under the United States-based Paulson Institute.

"The fight against COVID-19 involves global cooperation. China is supportive of all countries and regions around the world in actively exporting medical materials and sending out technicians for better communication. It is hoped that we could share what we have to win the battle against the epidemic sooner," Zhong said.

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