Foot-dragging at its best
Bureaucratic foot-dragging appears to be what Bangladesh Medical Research Council (BMRC) has done most of the time during the pandemic.
The government body, tasked with determining and facilitating priority areas in health research, took five months, from February to June this year, to inform local drugmaker Globe Biotech Ltd that animal trials would be required for the formal approval of its Covid-19 vaccine.
Also, in April this year, when many hospitals were struggling with patients needing high-flow oxygen due to a scarcity of high-flow nasal cannulas, inventors in Buet developed a device that could make high-flow oxygen support available at facilities lacking proper equipment.
But BMRC took three months to announce that the device, named OxyJet, could be trialed at hospitals. By the time the approval came, new cases of Covid-19 had declined and than there was another spike in the coronavirus infections.
A BMRC official familiar with the proceedings said the council did not have members with expertise to make decisions on such matters. Neither did the council bother to look for individuals who could make such decisions promptly.
On July 18 last year, BMRC approved human trials of China's Sinovac vaccine at seven hospitals. The country could have received a considerable number of doses of the vaccine if the trial took place here, experts said.
But the health ministry sat on the decision for over a month and by then, the parties concerned lost interest in holding the trial in Bangladesh.
BMRC, as an independent authority, could have taken a proactive role and urged the ministry to make prompt decisions in this regard, considering the urgency of the matter. But it hadn't, public health experts said.
Prof Nazrul Islam, a member of National Technical Advisory Committee on Covid-19, said, "BMRC could have done a lot of things to facilitate research during the pandemic. But I don't know what role it has played."
In February this year, 11 months after the first cases of Covid-19 were detected in Dhaka, BMRC published a list of areas on which it would fund and facilitate research. In the following months, BMRC funded 51 studies in the field, officials said.
Contacted, Dr Ruhul Amin, one of the directors of BMRC, said, "Some of the research is at final stages." He couldn't give a more specific answer regarding the status of the studies.
Compared to what research organisations in other countries have achieved, he added, BMRC's accomplishment amid the pandemic may seem underwhelming.
Dr Mahmud-Uz-Jahan, who was the director of BMRC until February, said fund shortage was mostly responsible for BMRC's lackluster performance.
FOOT-DRAGGING AT ITS BEST
On July 20 last year, Globe Biotech Ltd announced that it developed a Covid vaccine called Bangavax. On January 17 this year, Biotech's contract research organisation (CRO) submitted to BMRC the protocol for the first and second phase human trials of Bangavax.
On February 9, BMRC asked for additional information regarding over 100 issues of the proposed trial. The CRO submitted the information eight days later.
BMRC then took five months to say that Bangavax should be trialed first on monkeys or chimpanzees.
"Instead of helping us, BMRC created obstacles at every step of the process and caused unnecessary delays," Mohammad Mohiuddin, senior manager at Biotech, told The Daily Star, adding that this had happened at a time when regulators in other parts of the world were relaxing strict rules to expedite research.
On May 29, National Professor Shahla Khatun, chief of the ethical committee at BMRC, said, "The government's policy is to go slow..."
Asked whether government policy should be the deciding factor in a matter of science, Prof Shahla said, "That is not for me to say. We gave our decision regarding the trial [of Bangavax]. It was up to them [the executive body of the BMRC to formally announce the approval]."
BMRC Director Ruhul Amin refused to comment on why Biotech had to wait for five months for a response.
Prof Nazrul, also former vice chancellor of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, said, "There may have been some issues with the Biotech's vaccine. Despite this, I don't think BMRC played a supportive role."
A prominent scientist and public health expert, requesting not to be named, said, "Most of the individuals at the council were appointed because of their political affiliations rather than their research backgrounds."
This is why the council is in this state, said the expert.