CREDIT: Khalifa University

The UAE was quick to turn to wastewater monitoring when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

“The United Arab Emirates was the first in the region and the fifth worldwide,” Habiba Al Safar, the director of Khalifa University’s Center for Biotechnology, tells KUST Review.

Al Safar and teammates Shadi Hasan and Ahmed Yousef, in partnership with the Ministry of the Interior and Abu Dhabi Department of Energy, established the surveillance pipeline and strategic plan to tackle the pandemic in its earliest days.

It wasn’t an easy task, Al Safar says.

The team worked around the clock to prepare in-house reagents in this country. We had the full support from the government, and that helped the program to keep going non-stop.

Habiba Al Safar

“We established a scientific committee to discuss the best way to approach this pandemic by introducing an environmental surveillance program in the UAE. And given the full lockdown and the shortage of the supply chain of chemicals, equipment and reagents, we had to come up with a plan with existing equipment and laboratory facilities in the country. We had to build a dedicated laboratory for this program, and we did it in less than four months.”

Supply-chain issues made importing chemicals and consumables from abroad difficult.

“However, the team worked around the clock to prepare in-house reagents in this country,” Al Safar says. “We had the full support from the government, and that helped the program to keep going non-stop,” she adds.

Over the course of the pandemic, the university and government team members in Abu Dhabi helped inform UAE response policy, meeting weekly with top government officials and providing alerts when they spotted incoming waves, variants and disease hotspots.

This project also led the team to publish, with many surveillance programs established around the world using the project’s protocol, Al Safar says.

The wastewater monitoring, which has since been turned over to Ministry of the Interior, gave the government the information it needed for early detection of upcoming waves. This helped it create procedures and manage lockdowns.

“The UAE has managed the pandemic very well,” she says. “All the procedures and precautions that the decision makers were conducting and the massive PCR testing drives were to the benefit of our society and beloved people.” We are very lucky to have a leadership that cares for our well-being.”

Among other benefits from the project: It also provided training to UAE nationals and police officers, Al Safar says. “We didn’t just provide services. We provided training, knowledge, research and discoveries.”

In addition, the team recently filed a patent for a sensor that can detect the COVID-19 virus in wastewater in less than one minute.

In other responses to the pandemic, Khalifa University launched in 2020 a research and development program to rapidly develop knowledge and solutions in the areas of epidemiology; digital tools for virus-spread mitigation and resiliency; and diagnostics and medical devices. Sixteen projects were funded at a total level exceeding AED 10M. These included developing membranes for anti-viral masks; detailed knowledge regarding how the COVID-19 virus transmits between mammals and humans; and a mobile app that captures health data and detects early signs of COVID-19 symptoms.

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