From blockchain to vaccines: How the UAE is contributing to global COVID-19 research

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With the number of cases in the UAE reaching a new high, and authorities urging precaution and safety, research on COVID-19 has become more important than ever in the global fight against the virus.

As early as April last year, UAE authorities began awarding COVID-19 research grants to clinical, educational and research institutions across the country.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic, I saw a shift in the perception of science and a greater need for evidence-based decisions,” said Youssef Idaghdour, Professor of Biology at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), to Al Arabiya English.

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These grants encompass diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of COVID-19. The focus can range from the impact of humidity and heat on the virus, identifying biomarkers to improve diagnosis, COVID-19 impact on children, alternative treatments, and asymptomatic infections.

“If we understand what’s going on in the case of COVID-19, because there’s a whole family of viruses related to it, then we can potentially generalize this knowledge,” said Piergiorgio Percipalle, Professor of Biology at NYUAD, to Al Arabiya English.

Here are some of the latest research efforts ongoing inside the UAE:

Immunity passports for COVID-19 and blockchain technology

As one example, in May last year, the Abu Dhabi-based Khalifa University of Science and Technology established a COVID-19 Research and Development Task Force as part of its strategic approach to help tackle the pandemic, resulting in 14 fully funded research projects.

In late January 2021, Khalifa University announced research collaboration with the Dubai Police to understand its contribution to containing the outbreak in Dubai’s Naif district in the early months of the pandemic.

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“This comparative research features our organizational success in handling the crisis and will help us build a future-oriented responsive and anticipatory police force,” said Muhammad Almheiri, Captain at the Dubai Police, in a press statement in late January.

“It will also integrate and foster future driven studies between police organizations and academic national institutions like Khalifa University within a national framework of collaborative strategic research and development,” added Almheiri.

In collaboration with Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, Khalifa University published its research in IEEE Xplore research database on blockchain-based solutions for COVID-19 digital medical passports and immunity certificates with open-source code available online.

The research successfully tested the possibility of having a digital medical identity that is easily verified by health authorities and other stakeholders using blockchain. The technology has the potential to help return the world to safe travel, and curb the spread of more viral diseases using blockchain security features and digital medical history tracking.

Accelerating COVID-19 PCR tests

In mid-2020, NYUAD was awarded with 10 research grants to tackle various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic in engineering, biology, chemistry, and social sciences.

As one of the grant recipients, Professor Youssef Idaghdour’s biology lab shifted a part of its research on Malaria to addressing the scarcity and shortage of reagents in early PCR diagnostic tests.

“At the beginning, there was a shortage of everything. And you had the issue of both false positives and false negatives. And there was a cost associated with everything,” added Idaghdour.

In November last year, Professor Idaghdour’s lab was able to publish the efficiency results of faster virus testing in peer-reviewed journal Processes. The method is based on nano-chips rather than tubes, requiring less reagent for a greater number of tests.

The same method is now being used in PCR tests in Germany and the US.

Under the same research grant, another biology lab at NYUAD has been going back to the fundamentals and addressing the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate in immune response differences to COVID-19.

“[In my lab] we are interested to see how the COVID-19 proteins affect the human body,” explained Percipalle. “We combine the use of genomics with the design of tools to really trace the proteins in the cell that generate antibodies for specific types of people.”

He aims to relate his research findings with future vaccine and nano-antibody treatment technologies.

“Eventually, not only can we address fundamental research questions, but we can also use them as tools to detect the presence of viruses in a set of clinical material,” added Percipalle.

Researchers working on a new protocol for a more sensitive and accurate COVID-19 test at NYUAD. (NYUAD)
Researchers working on a new protocol for a more sensitive and accurate COVID-19 test at NYUAD. (NYUAD)

Global collaboration on the COVID-19 vaccine

On 25 January, the United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) announced its support for the clinical trial of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. The third please of the vaccine’s clinical trials has been announced in selected partner countries including the UAE.

Volunteers in the UAE trial are to receive two doses of the vaccine three weeks apart at Al Ain-based Tawam Hospital. The volunteers will participate for a year, and are tested at regular intervals to determine how effective the vaccine is and how long it remains effective.

Two of the laboratory tests will be conducted by UAEU scientists with other tests done at Al Ain’s Tawam hospital and the Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in Abu Dhabi.

The UAEU will be the first institution of higher education in the Middle East to study the third phase of a COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial, with plans in place to publish the findings of the vaccine’s efficacy in the UAE in peer-reviewed journals.

“Research is fundamental,” concluded Percipalle.

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