Researcher and scientist Dr Bijon Kumar Sil is a renowned name in the field of microbiology. In 2003, he invented the SARS coronavirus detection kit in Singapore. Recently, he has come under the limelight with his latest invention—G Rapid Dot Blot—a low-cost and time-saving kit developed by Gonoshasthaya Kendra for detecting Covid-19 with an accuracy of over 90 percent. Even though the kit is yet to be approved by the authorities, its promise has gained much appreciation. Having worked in prominent organisations internationally, the scientist from Natore returned to Bangladesh and joined Gono University and is now its lead virology scientist. The following is an excerpt from an interview taken by Golam Mortoza, which was broadcast live on The Daily Star's Facebook page recently.
What is the current status of your G Rapid Dot Blot kit?
Hopefully, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU) will give us the approval soon.
Last week when we spoke, you were expecting their report in a week's time, which has already passed. Isn't it taking a bit too long?
Yes, it is taking some time indeed. Initially we proposed to detect antibodies and antigens of coronavirus from the blood. But now we are able to do so from saliva—enabling us to get the results rapidly. We discovered that even before the symptoms start to appear in a patient, the virus is present in their saliva. Therefore, we requested BSMMU to use saliva as a sample in the trial of our kits. In order to do so, they had to hold a meeting again and get the approval. After that we gave them the kit along with the containers they needed to collect the saliva in, which they did not have. Hence, it has become a time-consuming process.
So far, two countries got the approval for antigen kits—US and Japan. Experts in Japan said that they will consider using the saliva test in the future. However, we have done so and the results seem promising. And it is with our kit that I have identified the virus in Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury on May 26. The next day he provided his sample to BSMMU for PCR test.
You were the first scientist in the world to proclaim the development of the antigen and antibody kits. Even though US did so later, they were able to bring it to the market earlier following their approval. You have also accomplished the saliva test before Japan did. Like before, do you think you may fall behind this time?
It is unlikely because we have already filed for a patent. If someone else wants to make use of it, they will need to get our consent.
There seems to be a lot of criticism regarding your kit. Many experts and physicians in the country have claimed that testing with your kit will not provide accurate results.
Those who claimed that the results won't be accurate must be very experienced, and I can't claim to be an expert like them. However, I am very familiar with the coronavirus as well because in 2003, I worked with SARS coronavirus during the outbreak, and the recent one is of a similar kind. What I say and do is based on my own experience. In 2003, I worked on four different methods to identify SARS, the first and second of which are not possible in Bangladesh because we don't have a laboratory of that calibre. Then there was the PCR method, which we designed at that time (in 2003) in Singapore and the final method was Dot Blot which enabled the fastest detection. It took around three and a half hours to get the result using PCR and cell culture takes even longer. With Dot Blot we can now get the result in three to five minutes. I claim its accuracy based on my research, innovation and testing.
What is the reason behind their criticism?
The naysayers may be knowledgeable, but I possess more experience in this regard. Both antibody and antigen tests are necessary. In the past 20 years, molecular technology has advanced remarkably. It has been reported from different parts of the world that PCR test results are coming out inaccurately and collecting samples for it remains challenging. It requires skilled technicians because if the sample is not collected from the precise spot, then the result won't be accurate. Therefore, there is a 30 percent chance of the result being inaccurate. The price of PCR machines are more expensive as well. Because of such constraints, I developed the Rapid Dot Blot kit. I respect criticism, but it would be better if it was constructive.
Whenever I try to reach you, I am told you are busy in the lab. What are you working on now?
Due to the lockdown, we had to import all the required reagents and it was a time consuming and challenging process. With all the criticism around, we are trying to refine our method as much as possible. The lab in which my team and I are working in now was arranged in only a week. What we are thinking about today, the west is doing so tomorrow. Hence, we had to work diligently so that there are no room for mistakes.
Having worked in state-of-the-art labs in Singapore, how was the experience of returning to Bangladesh to work for an organisation dedicated to the public health of the underprivileged?
The researchers in my team are all very talented individuals. In Singapore, I could avail all the necessary items in no time, there was no lockdown and we made the antigens ourselves. But there are limitations now. All that we require needs to be imported from outside. The foreign minister, the Prime Minister's Office, customs and others have all assisted us to progress this far.
How long did it take you to get approval for the SARS virus kit in Singapore?
Since there was a pandemic, it did not take us long to get the approval. As I had joined the Singapore Civil Service working for the government, the kit we made was considered government-approved.
Compared to SARS, COVID-19 is a worldwide contagion. How long are the developed nations taking to approve the kit during such an emergency?
In the US, in order to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), one would have to wait at least three years, provide extensive paperwork and it is a very expensive process. However, for the antigen kit to get approved by the FDA, it only took three days.
In PCR tests, around 30 percent of the time the results turn out to be inaccurate. What about your kit?
It is not possible to get 100 percent accurate results in every test. Due to antigen and antibody tests, the success rate of our kit tends to be above 90 percent.
Vietnam and South Korea have succeeded in dealing with coronavirus in a relatively short time. What would you attribute their success to?
While testing, we detected coronavirus in the saliva of numerous asymptomatic patients. If we look at South Korea, they have conducted mass testing using Rapid Test kits which helped them prevent the spread of the virus. The scenario here is different though, despite the restrictions that were in place, many ignored them increasing the chance of infection.
Many infected patients are opting for plasma therapy now. Probably even more so since Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury felt better after availing it. How feasible is plasma therapy in Bangladesh?
Last February, I posted on Facebook addressing the World Health Organization that hyper-immune therapy or plasma therapy was the way forward as it can prove effective even for critical patients. After administering it to Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury, it helped him create enough antibodies to fight Covid-19. There is another method which is better—if the blood from a recovered Covid-19 patient can be given to someone who is infected, provided that their blood groups match. Memory cells in the recovered patient's blood helps the plasma cells to produce around 2,000 antibodies every second in the blood to prevent the virus from dominating. Even though plasma therapy is compelling, the latter is even better. Another important factor in combatting this virus is one's morale. A strong morale significantly helps boost the body's immune system.
Since the lockdown is no longer be in place, as a scientist, what advice would you give to the general public?
We must maintain good hygiene at all costs. As the virus grows in the mouth, if we drink hot tea and gargle with it, the virus will not be able to multiply easily as tea is an antibiotic and the hot temperature will increase the blood circulation in the mouth increasing the cells of our immune system. Vitamin C plays a vital role too by activating our immune system. There were no supplements for vitamin C and zinc earlier. Gonoshasthaya then produced them. In addition to the natural sources of vitamin C, taking two supplements in the morning and two at night will greatly condense the prevalence of the virus. As there is no running from this virus, we should not dread it and must face it with courage and determination instead.