Child Health Research Foundation (CHRF)
Asian Scientist Magazine (Jul. 22, 2022) — At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists were racing against time to sequence the SARS-CoV-2 genome and map its spread across the globe. Within days, the full sequence was published online. This rapid turnaround was possible due to a better data and information sharing across borders, allowing scientists to optimize their sequencing protocols in real time as researchers in academia and the pharmaceutical industry began the task of developing a vaccine to combat the spread.
However, not all countries saw the immediate benefits of this great achievement. Historically, inequity in global health research has disproportionately impacted lower and middle income countries. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed this again in the inaccessibility of genomic sequencing reagents and – more disturbingly – the painfully slow and unequal distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to the Global South.
Despite this, an increasing number of local research groups in the Global South are carrying out SARS-CoV-2 sequencing and surveillance. In fact, it is through the sequencing and monitoring of SARS-CoV-2 variants in South Africa that led to the first detection of the Omicron variant.
In Bangladesh, Dr Senjuti Saha, director of the Child Health Research Foundation (CHRF), led her team of scientists to successfully sequence the full SARS-CoV-2 genome in their genomic sequencing facility in Dhaka. Now, Saha is leading an ongoing project of mapping and surveilling the presence of SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern across Bangladesh.
A fervent advocate of research and information equity in global health, she speaks to Asian Scientist Magazine and shares the challenges she and her team faced in their mapping and surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 variants in Bangladesh, and the importance of perseverance to build a more equitable research landscape.
- Why did you create an infectious disease genomic sequencing facility in Bangladesh?
Before I opened this genomic sequencing facility, I did my molecular genetics PhD in Canada and had been living there for 11 years. I decided to go back to Bangladesh because I wanted to address the 10/90 gap – 10% of global resources focusing on health research is invested in developing countries where 90% of preventable deaths in children occur. And this is something that I feel is very unfair. I wanted to bring my expertise in genomic sequencing back to my birth country to empower the local scientific community in narrowing that 10/90 gap.
I moved back to Bangladesh in 2016 and began the process of opening my own genomic sequencing facility. By 2018 we had a small sequencing machine. I secured funding and collaborated with local sequencing groups to train each other on using the sequencing machine to sequence pathogenic microbes that are endemic to Bangladesh such as meningitis and typhoid.
When COVID-19 hit Bangladesh, we had already established the facilities and the expertise needed to conduct genomic sequencing, so we didn’t have to think about the logistics and capacity of sequencing SARS-CoV-2 here. With whatever resources we have, we must start documenting exactly what are the variants that are circulating in the country.
- Were there any major hurdles you and your team faced while sequencing and surveilling SARS-CoV-2 variants?
When we first started sequencing the SARS-CoV-2 genome, we didn’t have access to resources, and available protocols weren’t optimized. We had very limited reagents available, so we could only sequence a single sample. On top of that, the scientists trained in sequencing at CHRF were working at the diagnostic labs in the morning and could only prepare the samples for sequencing at night.
We succeeded in sequencing SARS-CoV-2, and although the sequence itself didn’t tell us much at that point, it did give us confidence that these sorts of things can be done successfully in countries like ours. From there, more groups in Bangladesh began sequencing SARS-CoV-2. We worked collaboratively with multiple groups in the country to take randomized samples in patients and suspected cases, sequence the genome and keep track of the variants present in the population. It has now become a collaborative effort to surveil and monitor the spread of SARS-CoV-2 variants across the country.
- Research and information inequity has been one of the major challenges scientists from the Global South have faced in the race to understand diseases. Do you believe this situation is changing?
Absolutely. I think what we’ve done here in CHRF and in Bangladesh has highlighted that research conducted by scientists in the Global South can be done successfully and independently. We can go against the colonial model where collaborators from the Global North come in, take some sample, get their shoes dirty for an afternoon, sequence, process and interpret the data outside of the country where the samples were originally obtained.
But for me, I think what’s more rewarding is the confidence that people have gained in the country, because I think that colonial culture works both ways. It is not like the Global North is only at fault. I think we are equally at fault of perpetuating that colonial culture, because perhaps we forget what our abilities are.
- What is the driving force behind your advocacy work?
It’s emotions, passion, lived experiences and love for the community that propels the work forward. When we look at history, we look at apartheid, the feminism movements and more recently the Black Lives Matter movement, it is not the oppressor who brings change, but rather the oppressed who experience and recognize the problem. They mobilize, lead and push these social movements forward. Power is never given; power must be taken.
I’m still learning this lesson. A couple of years ago, I would be giving talks to a Global North audience and discuss about problems affecting the Global South, trying to change their minds and show them the real scenario. While I think that’s important -and I still do talks like that – I think what’s more important is that researchers in Bangladesh and other lower-middle income countries recognize what the problem is and take it upon themselves to move the agenda forward.
- With any major movement, there will always be backlash especially for movements headed by marginalized communities. Is there any advice you would like to give young scientists in navigating and pushing past the backlash? Patience is extremely important. This is something that I’ve learned -and I’m still learning – throughout my career. You could brute force your way through, but it can only take you so far. We have to be strategic, and we need unity. We can’t change centuries worth of mindset within a few years. It takes time. So, we’ve got to be patient but firm in our unity and focused on our values and mission.
(Responses are edited for length and clarity).
This article is from a regular series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Child Health Research Foundation.