Amid the worsening Covid-19 situation in Bangladesh, the decision comes as a surprise to health experts and general people
Since the detection of Covid-19 in Bangladesh for the first time on March 8, the government has been struggling to increase the number of testing facilities in the country.
According to health experts and the World Health Organization (WHO), a far-reaching and efficient coronavirus testing system is essential in the fight against the pandemic.
Currently, only 50 labs across Bangladesh are conducting Covid-19 tests, which in terms of the country’s population is alarmingly insufficient.
Amid such a situation, five public universities – Dhaka University (DU), Noakhali Science and Technology University (NSTU), Jessore University of Science and Technology (JUST), Chittagong Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (CVASU) and Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST) – in the last couple of months joined the campaign to boost the country’s coronavirus testing capacity.
Ironically, however, Dhaka University has now opted out of the initiative and that at a time when the country was most in need of its contribution.
Are funds the only issue?
Despite the Covid-19 situation worsening with every passing day, the decision by Dhaka University, the leading educational institution of the country, to discontinue its testing efforts has caused much surprise among experts and general people.
The university authorities have claimed that this decision has been taken as they do not have enough funds and, moreover, regular research activities of the university need to be resumed.
Till now, none of the aforementioned public universities, except Dhaka University, have shut down their Covid-19 testing services.
The DU move comes at a time when a lab at Chittagong University, equipped to test 500 samples a day, is all set to start operations after it was inaugurated by Education Minister Dr Dipu Moni on Monday.
Reached by Dhaka Tribune, DU Vice Chancellor Prof Dr Md Akhtaruzzaman suggested the correspondent contact the university’s Coronavirus Response Coordination Committee, led by Prof Sharif Akhtaruzzaman, regarding the issue.
When asked, Prof Sharif, along with other members of the committee, claimed that a shortage of funds and a lack of cooperation from the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) were the main reasons behind the university shutting down its testing operations.
Dismissing these claims, however, VC Akhtaruzzaman said that the university had already decided that its lab would not conduct any Covid-19 tests after May 31.
“The DGHS was notified to this effect on May 27,” he added.
“The equipment at the Centre for Advanced Research in Sciences (CARS), which till now was used to test Covid-19 samples, was brought in from other labs of the university. Now these devices will be sent back to the labs concerned as regular research work of the university needs to resume,” he told Dhaka Tribune.
“Besides, we can resume our services very quickly if the government asks us to,” he added.
It is, however, obvious that the university is not going back to its on-campus academic activities soon as on Tuesday its authorities decided to start online classes considering the pandemic. The move to shut down testing facilities thus raises more questions than it answers.
Other institutions continue contributions
This correspondent, in order to get a better understanding of how other universities across the country are continuing to contribute in the fight against Covid-19, spoke to their VCs.
Prof Dr Goutam Buddha Das, VC of CVASU, said: “We are yet to decide on resuming on-campus academic activities amid the pandemic. But when we do, Covid-19 testing in our university will be shut down at least 20 days prior to that.
Total tests as of June 2
Number of rt-PCR machines
June 1 (inauguration)
Yet to start
“I arranged a Covid-19 fund of around Tk20 lakh from our internal income fund. We even renovated the window panes of the lab, which had been broken due to Cyclone Amphan, from own funds.”
“If we see that the funds for the Covid-19 crisis are running low, we will replenish them from the income fund as the university is run by public money and we care about our country’s interest,” he added.
Prof Dr Farid Uddin, VC of SUST in Sylhet, while talking to Dhaka Tribune said: “Those who want to conduct regular research in the lab can do so by following health regulations since conducting Covid-19 tests is not hampering anyone’s research work.
“Regular academic activities will not have such an impact as to have us do away with the Covid-19 testing facility.”
“We have imported and installed a new real time polymerase chain reaction (rt-PCR) machine worth Tk1.1 crore from Germany. Our government cooperated a lot in the import procedure for our self-funded machine, which is aimed at serving the national interest,” he said.
“We are on our way to having another rt-PCR machine to test samples and also have arranged 12 guest houses and food supply from our own funds to ensure safety and accommodation for teachers, students and staff members who are involved in the testing process,” Prof Farid added.
“Everyone is supporting us and doing all that is being done from love of country. They did not demand any money in exchange for their services. They even sacrificed their Eid holidays so that they could conduct Covid-19 tests,” he said.
“Basically willingness is the key factor when it comes to continuing Covid-19 test efforts. The university has a huge amount of unused money because of the shutdown. So we are managing expenses from there.”
While JUST and NSTU authorities said that they did face fund issues but did not want to discontinue their testing operations, NSTU had to stop testing for Covid-19 multiple times due to the lack of government-provided testing kits. Meanwhile, JUST did not receive the number of samples that could complement its capacity.
NSTU VC Prof Dr Md Didar-ul-Alam, talking to this correspondent, said that the sheer patriotism of his teachers and students was behind their being able to continue their testing facility despite the lack of testing kits from the government.
“We are running out of money and we have been allocated a smaller amount than other universities as we are relatively new. Three local lawmakers of Noakhali district arranged a fund of Tk15 lakh initially to support the testing labs. But we on our own need to bear many expenses amid all constraints,” he added.
“We are going through severe hardship through self-funding. Students are not trained, many of our colleagues involved with conducting tests have been infected. Where will I express this sorrow…? In spite of so many obstacles and limitations, we will keep serving the nation as long as we can.”
Meanwhile, JUST VC Prof Dr Md Anwar Hossain said that the university authorities had arranged expenses related to Covid-19 testing from the university’s research fund as per directives given by the University Grants Commission (UGC).
“We are conducting these tests as part of serving the national interest. But we don’t know how long we will continue this. If we cannot afford it then we must stop. Besides, we are getting fewer samples from the government to test.
“We don’t need to involve our students in this process. Besides, there are no safety concerns for them as all academic activities are currently suspended,” said Prof Anwar.
After the coronavirus outbreak in Bangladesh, the self-motivated response committee of DU, on March 29, proposed to the ministry that the university would test samples at its lab, adding that its researchers were able to develop low cost real-time Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction (rt-PCR) kits for sample testing.
The Secretary of Health Services on April 9 was notified by the Medical Education and Family Welfare Division of the health ministry that DU, JUST, SUST and CVASU laboratories could be used after feasibility tests had been carried out.
Weeks later, the government cleared the universities to operate testing at different times.
JUST started conducting tests from April 17, via one machine and as of June 2 had tested 1,644 samples.
CVASU started testing on April 25, and has conducted 3,077 tests so far with two machines.
The CARS lab of DU tested some 2,378 samples beginning on May 7 till its shutting down. It also did genome sequencing of five samples.
Starting on May 11, NSTU has conducted a total of 2,083 tests so far with a single machine.
Since May 18, SUST has tested 1,433 samples with an rt-PCR machine.