Even as Yemen continues shocking the world, with its images of deaths, destruction, and starvation, one of its citizens Ali Azzawri is part of a Turkish scientific team rolling out a vaccine against the COVID-19.
Azzawri, 39, was selected by the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey known as TUBITAK in May 2020 to be part of a team of 13 scientists to indigenously develop Messenger RNA vaccines -- also called mRNA vaccines to combat the pandemic.
According to experts, these are new types of vaccines, who direct cells to make a particular protein to trigger an immune response. Other vaccines, instead put a weakened or inactivated germ into human bodies to activate the immune system.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Azzawri said the vaccine development was at an advanced stage in Turkey, although the work on it started late. He said Turkey was currently among the top countries researching in this field.
“My team in Selcuk University started working in the middle of June last year as the only team in Turkey and the Middle East that uses mRNA technology, which is the same technology used by the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine,” he said.
Azzawri’s wife and children are currently living in Yemen and due to war, he has not been able to visit them over the past two years.
“Turkey’s first mRNA vaccine was developed a month-and-a-half ago and because of our non-stop work, the vaccine is currently at the animal testing phase and expected to be ready for human use soon,” he added.
He is the only foreigner in the team developing and testing the crucial vaccine. He said Turkey over the years has attained a significant advancement in the scientific fields.
“Turkey, in recent years, has witnessed a great development and progress in the research field, and Turkish universities and research centers have a good infrastructure and qualified scientists,” he said.
- Competent hand
The head of the vaccine project Dr. Nadir Kocak, praised Azzawi, describing him as a competent hand in the molecular techniques used in this vaccine project.
“We benefited a lot from his knowledge and experience in these techniques. He made important contributions to our project with his hard work and discipline,” he told Anadolu Agency.
“We never use discrimination based on race or belief. Working together for humanity has been our main goal. We aim to do our best for humanity in this difficult period,” he added.
Over the past nine months, working round the clock the team is racing to roll out the vaccine, by adhering to all international norms of testing procedures.
“Work on the project is carried out around the clock. The concept of fixed working hours has disappeared from our lives. Sometimes we do not leave the laboratory for days. Our family time has become very limited,” said Azzawri.
The Yemeni born scientist had previously worked as a teaching assistant at Dhamar University in Yemen. Since 2010, he has been living in Konya where he finished his master's and a doctorate from Selcuk University. He has also worked as a lecturer at Diyarbakir University until he was selected to be part of a vaccine project in the middle of 2020.
Just a month after they started working on the project, Azzawri’s team was included in the list of candidate vaccines by the World Health Organization (WHO).
- Turkish vaccine candidates
Kocak said Turkey has already three other vaccines, which are undergoing human trials. He said although his team started 3-4 months behind other teams, they are already in the final stages of animal testing.
“We want to be highly confident of the vaccine’s effectiveness before starting human trials,” he added.
According to procedures as set by the WHO, an experimental vaccine is first tested in animals to evaluate its safety and potential to prevent disease. It is then tested in human clinical trials, in three phases.
Turkey began its mass COVID-19 vaccination campaign on Jan. 14, starting with healthcare workers along with top officials to encourage public confidence in the vaccines, and then moving to older individuals.
According to the Turkish Health Ministry, over 2 million people have been vaccinated, including frontline health workers so far.
“Even though we are not using the actual virus in our experiments nor we are directly exposed to it, some of our team members were infected at different times due to their social connections outside the lab,” said Azzawri, highlighting the dangers.
“As most of our time is spent in the hospital, we, like the rest of the medical staff, are more vulnerable to get infected. I did not show any symptoms yet, but the possibility of getting infected still exists,” he added.
- Family back in Yemen
Living with his sick mother, who came to Turkey for treatment and is not able to return to Yemen due to lockdown and war, Azzawri said punishing schedules at the laboratory, do not allow him to spend much time with his mother.
He had planned to visit his family in Yemen last summer, but after being selected to be part of the team to develop the vaccine, he canceled plans to visit the family.
“I have devoted myself to the project, considering the ambitious goal we have and the sacrifice needed,” he said.
Asked about the situation of COVID-19 in Yemen, Azzawri said he feels sad about the situation in his country. He said people in his country may have gained a herd immunity, because of fighting with more than four strains of coronavirus, especially the MERS strain, which had spread in Yemen during the past nine years.
“This provided a good immunity to the majority of the people in Yemen. But with poor healthcare system in the country, the situation is still dangerous if new strains break out,” he added.
According to the US-based Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center Yemen has so far reported 2,134 infections with 616 deaths. As many as 1,426 infected people recovered as well. But experts believe the number could be higher as there have been low rates of testing in the country -- the second-largest Arab sovereign state at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula in Western Asia.