Biotechnologists: the unsung heroes of COVID-19 war in Bangladesh

Mahmud-Al-Rafat | Published: 00:00, Jul 12,2020


While discussing about the frontline role of biotechnologists in the COVID-19 research in Bangladesh, Mahmud-Al-Rafat argues about the need of a uniform government policy and recognition for the biotechnologists

WE ARE often saying that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has become an eye opener to us but have our eyes really opened? Are we being able to use all our available resources? Though the government is trying to accommodate all expert opinions to fight this war but still some are remain unnoticed. Government cannot fight alone in this pandemic situation, it is also our duty to support the government to make the right decisions and make them accountable for their actions.

This is the right time when we need all hands for not only logistics availability but also we need proper placement of skilled persons. An appropriate utilisation of our human resources is a must to win this war. Here comes both the necessity and negligence towards biotechnologists that remains unnoticed. Being an executive committee member of Bangladesh Association of Biotechnology Graduates, a national platform for biotechnologist, I am privileged to know many untold stories of brave and skilled biotechnologists as well as unfortunate to see how they remain the unsung heroes in this COVID-19 war.

BABG feels the urge to bring these heart touching stories of those young bloods who have sacrificed their personal and family safety in order to support the people in this grave situation. Yes, we are talking about those more than 100 biotechnologists who has served voluntarily in many COVID-19 testing laboratories since March 2020. Some of them are involved in developing laboratory set up and giving training to medical personnel about RT-PCR based test method while some others are involved in doing the test to support increasing government’s capacity in COVID-19 management by following ‘test, trace, isolate and support’.

Let me share about some brave soul among those front line fighters. Young and energetic biotechnologist Kazi Porag was engaged in developing eight different COVID-19 testing facility since the beginning and now he is a COVID-19 patient himself. Having full knowledge about the life risk during this pandemic, Porag could not resist himself from his duty and responsibility. Being COVID-19 positive is not that much frustrating to him than knowing that after doing all this, still people are saying, ‘this is not the place for biotechnologists’, while standing in the lab he developed.

Another skilled biotechnologist, Md Salauddin, is moving across the country since March as a part of his job. His job is to establish RT-PCR labs and train-up people for doing this test. He has been successful to establish so many labs yet has failed to establish the fact that biotechnologists can lead molecular diagnostics.

An inspiring biotechnologist Sabiha Pia started working voluntarily in a lab developed by Salauddin. Dealing with viruses on daily basis, she had to isolate herself from her family members and stay in a small rooftop room. Her family gave her full support but still it was hard for her little boy to support his mom. However the kid is happy now to have his mother back but did Sabiha returned with happy memories? Well, she never had. Because, in this situation, after developing lab, Porag and Salauddin failed to get recognition. BABG talked with many volunteers who were working in many labs across the country. Almost all of them faced negligence and insult while supporting the government fully voluntarily to fight this war. Biotechnology volunteers jumped in this grave situation to support the government without any hesitation and they were prepared to fight COVID-19 but they were not prepared to fight the unwelcomed surroundings. None of them are part of any government support, allowance or any stimulus package even when it comes to get appointed for short period their names come last or even never.

From the beginning BABG was trying to support our government to fight this COVID-19 war by providing volunteers and experts. However, we have noticed that many of our volunteers were hindered to do their job and many of them had to discontinue though these are not by their will. Actually, we have to prepare more volunteers but before that we have to ensure their proper recognition, safety, equal opportunity with other COVID-19 fighters and a friendly environment. 

Recently few recruitments and circulars of molecular biologist for testing purpose has drawn attention as they fully ignored biotechnologist. BABG gave a press release by expressing its concern in the recruitment criteria regarding COVID-19 testing facility establishment. This press release was published in many national dailies and also created a noise in social network among biotech graduates. BABG team further met with the directorate general of Health Services authority and expressed the situation faced by our graduates as well as discrimination in recruitment process.

Efforts paid by biotech graduates since March should not go in vain. The DGHS authorities recently issued a letter of recognition to support the voluntary works of biotechnologists and include biotechnology degree as eligibility criteria in a recent temporary recruitment circular for COVID-19 laboratory consultant in Bhola. We are thankful to DGHS, health ministry as well as to authorities who are involved in COVID-19 management but our work is not done yet. It is good that our volunteers’ works are at least recognised but with this recognition now they should be given equal opportunities to compete and considered in all molecular and medical diagnostics expert position.

As I said earlier, the government alone is not enough to fight this war, BABG wants to provide full support to government in COVID-19 management. UNFPA is working with IEDCR to increase the number of testing throughout the country. BABG had a talk with UNFPA to provide skilled biotechnologist so that testing capacity can be increased.

On the one side, BABG members have to raise their voices to draw attention of authorities so that the authorities can realise that we have enough skilled human resources. And on the other side, BABG has to enlist more volunteers and experts to prepare them to response anytime when they are needed.

University professors from biotechnology departments and BABG executive committee members are writing and talking in both print and electronic media in order to establish the equal right for biotechnologists. BABG already had a discussion with all public university biotechnology department chairman and director general of national institute of biotechnology Md Salimullah. 

In that discussion, all agreed that absence of national biotechnology policy is the main reason why biotechnologists are not yet recognised and properly utilised for service. NIB already prepared and submitted a draft of national biotechnology policy but unfortunately due to COVID-19 crisis that policy is yet to be finalised. But, till national biotechnology policy is available, we cannot wait while our graduates are very much capable of doing the test. Moreover, they have the knowledge about how this technology works. Therefore, they involved themselves since the beginning of this crisis. With proper opportunity as well as benefits, we could use more skilled human resources. Besides encouraging and promoting these graduates, BABG is also focusing on developing more skilled volunteers for future. BABG is already planning on-line based training for all biotechnology graduates which will be available across the country.

June 25, 2020 was the 25th anniversary of biotechnology in Bangladesh. This is heart breaking fact that still biotechnologist are not equally treated with other biological graduates for service.

In this COVID-19 situation, now our focus should be how we can engage more of these skilled biotechnologists. We can introduce shifting system in laboratories so that by using the same facility we can increase number of tests. This will involve engagement of few more skilled persons but will not increase extra logistical cost for existing facility.

We should recognise that those biotechnologists who worked in many COVID-19 laboratories are also our frontline fighters like many others in this crisis. If we want to increase our capability we have to promote them as well as engage many more frontline fighters to win against COVID-19.

Mahmud-Al-Rafat is the communication and publication secretary of Bangladesh Association of Biotechnology Graduates

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