x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Dubai vet lab equipped to find deadly Sars-like coronavirus in humans

The scientific director of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory says his high security lab has the resources to test for novel coronavirus.

A lab technician working in the new Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai . Pawan Singh / The National
A lab technician working in the new Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai . Pawan Singh / The National

DUBAI // A veterinary laboratory in Dubai says it is ready and able to carry out tests for the deadly novel coronavirus in humans.

Experts had expressed concern that the UAE was the only GCC country without a centre that could test for novel coronavirus, which causes an acute respiratory illness.

But Dr Ulrich Wernery, the scientific director of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory (CVRL), says he has advised authorities his high-security lab has the resources to carry out the tests.

“We would be very happy and proud to help people and to carry out these tests and isolate this virus,” said Dr Wernery.

“We are in touch with the Minister of Environment and Water and the Health Minister.”

Although CVRL was built to handle veterinary tests, the techniques it uses are the same as those used for testing for viruses that affect humans, including novel coronavirus.

“If any suspected cases occur they can send samples from patients who are hospitalised here and we can do the testing. We have all the facilities,” Dr Wernery said.

The lab could start testing immediately as it has obtained reference material from a laboratory abroad that has identified the virus.

This material carries the unique signature of novel coronavirus and, when used in a process known as a polymerase chain reaction, establishes whether the virus is present in sputum samples taken from patients.

This form of testing is extremely quick and very accurate and can be carried out on swab samples.

Normally the results are confirmed by a second procedure that involves isolating and growing the virus after it is extracted from samples. The Dubai lab can also carry out this test, which takes between four and seven days.

The only alternative to carrying out the tests here would be to send the samples to labs abroad.

“It would be much easier to send them to us because otherwise they would need a permit, and not every airline will take this very highly contagious material,” Dr Wernery said. “You would need a special container that you can only buy abroad, and it would all take time.

“We can do this here and we can contain the samples, this is a very sophisticated lab and I am extremely proud that we have it.

Our staff will not become infected because they wear special gear.”

The new lab, which cost Dh9.5 million to build and is packed with advanced equipment, opened in March.

If the centre is asked to help it will not be the first time it has handled samples taken from people.

“Four years ago we had a swine flu outbreak and more or less all the human samples came here for testing,” said Dr Wernery.

The team helped to identify 40 new strains of swine flu and sent the findings to the World Health Organisation. It was this experience that led to the decision to build the lab so the facilities would exist to help deal with outbreaks of life-threatening diseases.

Novel coronavirus belongs to the same family of pathogens as severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), which killed 775 people a decade ago.

The WHO said this week it was likely that the virus could be passed between people in close contact. This came after a patient in France contracted the illness after being placed in the same hospital ward as a sufferer who fell ill after returning from Dubai.

It was the second case linked to the UAE. In March an Emirati man died from the virus in Germany after being taken there from a hospital in Abu Dhabi by air ambulance.

There have been at least 18 deaths across the Middle East and Europe since the virus was first discovered in Saudi Arabia last September.

The kingdom’s official news agency yesterday reported four new cases. One patient has been released and the other three remain in treatment.