Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury is a freedom fighter and founder of Gonoshasthaya Kendra – the healthcare organisation that has developed an "easy, effective and affordable method" to test for the novel coronavirus. On March 19, the Directorate General of Drug Administration (DGDA) approved Gonoshasthaya Kendra to import raw materials for producing the testing kit Rapid Dot Blot.
The Business Standard (TBS): The novel coronavirus has reached rapid-spread stage. So far, dozens have been infected and deaths reported. As an experienced medical professional, what is your advice to tackle this crisis?
Zafrullah Chowdhury (ZC): Overall, this is a bad situation. From the beginning, I have been urging the authorities not to hide the truth. Right now, we have to be united – both the government and ordinary people – to handle this deadly virus.
In this fight against coronavirus, the government indeed has a key role to play. But it is also the duty of the people to do their part in fighting the novel coronavirus.
As we know, the government is now putting restrictions on businesses and regular movements of people in some areas to contain the virus, still the question remains, what will happen to these people and their businesses? The government should subsidise the poor so they can maintain livelihoods at home.
The doctors have to be courageous in facing the situation. They should not escape from an infected patient. If the doctors and nurses get scared, then the people will be more panicked. Medical professionals cannot escape from this pandemic. We have to stand by the people and keep fighting this war.
In this situation of the country, the government must work 24/7 and operate as if we are in a war-like situation. In conventional battles, we can see the enemies and fight them, but this war against coronavirus is so treacherous that we cannot even see what we are fighting against.
So, we have to fight coronavirus with the highest dedication. We also need to remember that neither getting scared nor telling lies would benefit us.
TBS: How do you evaluate the government's response in addressing coronavirus? Do you think the steps taken by the government so far are adequate?
ZC: I think the steps taken by the government so far are on the right track. However, these are not adequate. For example, the government restricted public congregation, closed down schools, colleges and universities, which are good steps indeed. But there are some decisions of the government which I believe are wrong. For example, restrictions on the markets, or restricting people from coming out of their homes will not help. People will have to come out.
The government should emphasise on the word "unnecessary" instead. If you can manage your household by coming out once, don't come out twice "unnecessarily". The government should spread the message in this manner. Along with the government, I believe the media has a huge role to play. The media should ensure that proper messages are reaching the people.
There seems to be a growing phobia against the returnees from Italy and some other countries. Don't spread hatred against them, rather spread awareness and do not forget that our migrant workers are the people who keep our economy running.
We have to understand that only using the military to chase after the returnees from abroad or restricting the movement of buses and trucks will not be enough. For the sake of transporting goods and people, these vehicles must run. But to ensure safety, the government should ensure proper screening at the bus terminals and train stations.
TBS: After rapid spread of coronavirus in countries like Iran and Italy, many in Bangladesh are panicked and fear a massive escalation in Bangladesh. What do you think?
ZC: This cannot be predicted. However, I believe that despite all the previous warnings, this virus can still be fought if we cooperate and work together. But so far, we have noticed a lack of coordination. The government hospitals are admitting patients till now. The IEDCR has publicly shared some phone numbers to communicate with them, however, it is very hard to go through to somebody to talk with. Such an inadequate response system will not help. Instead, they should constantly work to keep hope and courage high among the people.
TBS: Tell us about the system that Ganasasthya Kendra developed to test Covid-19. How is Rapid Dot Blot different from regular kits and how accurate will the results be?
ZC: Rapid Dot Blot will detect coronavirus the way blood groups are identified. In the conventional system, saliva is collected from mouth and nose to detect the virus, but Rapid Dot Blot does this through a drop of blood.
While the conventional system can detect coronavirus immediately after it enters the body, our method will take 72 hours. This is the negative side of the system. The positive part is, PCR takes up to five days for the result, but Rapid Dot Blot will take a little time to detect coronavirus once 72 hours have passed and we will have results within five to fifteen minutes.
Besides, whereas the conventional system will cost 12,000 to 13,000 taka to test a patient, we will do it for 250 taka if the government exempts tax and vat. And its efficiency and accuracy is very high.
TBS: When did you start developing this? How long will it take to put it to use?
ZC: Instead of travelling back to the past, let me tell you what has happened after we received the government approval. Following the approval at 1:00pm, we ran after the banks as they ended their business hour by 2:00pm on Thursday.
We managed to send money abroad after the LC and we are bringing the raw materials from England. The efficiency and accuracy of the method is our first priority. We could import this from some other sources and make a profit, but still chose England to ensure the best quality.
We have requested them to send us the materials soon and they promised to do it within seven days.
The government must ensure that they let our materials through in two hours after they arrive. This is an emergency, everybody should understand that. No matter what time the plane lands, they must ensure swift handover of the material.
You will be happy to know that this is a collective effort by a team of five efficient doctors led by Dr Bijon Kumar Sil. Dr Sil invented a method to test SARS virus in the past and China bought its patent. We have been working on Dengue since last December. But when coronavirus began to spread in Wuhan, Dr Sen proposed to work on this. We should be very proud of him.