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In mid-January 2020, Associate Professor Dr Aneela Javed and Assistant Professor Dr Ali Zohaib had a Eureka moment.

The two young scientists of the Attaur Rahman School of Applied Biosciences (Asab) at the National University of Sciences and Technology (Nust), Islamabad had been constantly discussing research work to curb the spread of coronavirus, with each other and with the virologists’ community in Pakistan and abroad. With the world in the grip of an unprecedented pandemic and with the number of infected people rising by the hour, Javed and Zohaib put aside their other research activities in the lab to develop an indigenous diagnostic kit to test for Covid-19. The cost of the current coronavirus diagnostic test is reportedly over 8,000 rupees, but this scientist duo says that with the development of their indigenous kit, the test will cost only one-fourth of that price.

“It was the middle of January when we started conceiving the idea and initiated discussion with virologists in Pakistan and abroad,” says Zohaib.

They sent an email to their collaborator abroad for primers (components used to detect the virus) so that they could initiate work on their idea.

“Since then, we have been working on the idea and spent most of our time in the lab,” says Zohaib. “It doesn’t end here,” Dr Aneela pipes in. “We have been in regular discussion over the phone till late night,” she says.

On February 1, they received the first package of components, required to develop the test kit, from their collaborators. Thus began their work.

The indigenously designed diagnostic kit would cost a fraction of internationally purchased kits

“I was desperate to receive a response to my email. I waited the entire day and made several calls to the company’s office,” Zohaib says, recalling his anticipation.

Initially, they discussed their research with Asab principal Dr Hussnain Janjua and got his approval. By February 14, they informed him that they had the capability of developing Covid-19 test kits. With smiles on their faces, the Nust scientists tell Eos that whenever they got discouraged due to various reasons, they turned to Dr Janjua. “He was the person who was always available for us and remained a great source of motivation,” says Javed. “He always facilitated us whenever we sought help in completing our research project.”

Javed and Zohaib also appreciate the contribution of their students, one a PhD student, and another MS degree holder who currently works as a research assistant.

“They are still busy in research work while we are here giving interviews,” says Zohaib. It was not possible for Eos to interview the students as it is against the university’s policies.

“From day one of the outbreak of the coronavirus in China, I asked my colleagues in China and Pakistan whether its a reoccurrence of SARS, which broke out in 2003. The exact words of one of my friends were, “Brother, believe me, this is not SARS, it’s something else,” Zohaib recalls.

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