Zafrullah Chowdhury, founder trustee of Gonosasthaya Kendra, spoke in an interview with Prothom Alo on Sunday, about the coronavirus pandemic, the Gonosasthaya test kit and how to tackle the crisis.

Q: How effective will Gonosasthaya's innovation be in detecting COVID-19?

Zafrullah Chowdhury: Our chief scientist Bijon Kumar Sheel in the nineties worked for the government. After retirement, he became quite renowned as a researcher in Singapore. He was the one to make the kit to detect SARS. China bought the patent from him.

Last December after the Wuhan outbreak took place, he and his team (Dr Nahid, Dr Zamir and Dr Firoz) were quick to discern the seriousness of the problem. Towards the beginning of March they concluded that they could detect those infected with COVID-19.

There is a difference between the PCR (polymer chain reaction) which is presently being used, and the Gonosashtaya Rapid Dot Blot. Through the PCR method, if anyone has been affected by coronavirus, it can be detected immediately. Our kit takes some time, only detecting the presence of COVID-19 after 72 hours of the virus entering the body.

However, price-wise our kit is very affordable. In the PCR method, the test for one person including the kit coasts around Tk 12,000 to Tk 13,000. Testing by our method costs Tk 250 only and we hope to be able to market it at this price. Again, it takes a few days to get the PCR test results. Our kit can give the test results in less than 15 minutes.

Q: How has the reaction been to this kit at home and abroad? How much would it cost if it wasn't duty-free?

Zafrullah Chowdhury: CDC, Atlanta and a number of other foreign agencies have contacted us by email. We are ready to cooperate with everyone. The National Board of Revenue has agreed to allow us to import equipment free of duty. I must applaud this decision of the government. Without duty-free facilities, a kit would cost Tk 500. But we don't want to add any profit margin to this.

The steps taken by the government so far are inadequate. They are not realising the seriousness of the matter

Q: So why will only Gonosashthaya make this then? Will you share the formula with the government, the private sector and other interested pharmaceutical companies?

Zafrullah Chowdhury: Of course. Our stance is very clear. We will welcome anyone of the government or private sector who comes forward to market the kit on the condition that they don't fix the price at their own will. The government must fix the price under the 1982 drug control act.

We will be able to market the kit in one month's time, though perhaps we won't be able to manufacture more than 100,000 kits per month. The monthly demand is much more so we want the government to come forward to manufacture the kits.

Q: On 21 March the drug administration directorate published a misleading notice in the media about this. They hadn't given the approval to manufacture the kit. You all would have to ensure the 'quality, effectiveness and safety' of the kit.

Zafrullah Chowdhury: I don't know who paid for the advertisement, but it is unfortunate, unnecessary and irrelevant to use public money for such a notice. The kit isn't going to enter anyone's body. All that is needed is one drop of blood to detect the presence of the virus. It is obvious that a sample will be submitted to the government before going for commercial production. That sample must be given approval for commercial production. That is why we need to import some reagents and other items to make that sample. On Thursday the drug administration gave approval to develop the kit. Naturally that was not for marketing. However, on the afternoon of 20 March, we received a phone call from NBR. The NBR officials even held meetings with us during the holiday and assured us of duty-free facilities for the items we required. This is the first time I have seen bureaucracy working so fast. We have already contacted a company in England about these imports.

Q: Considering the possible extensive spread of coronavirus, what do you think of the government preparation so far?

Zafrullah Chowdhury: The steps taken by the government so far are inadequate. They are not realising the seriousness of the matter. Their cooperation regarding our kit has been satisfactory, but I was referring to the two months the government too for its overall preparation.

Q: How should the government prioritise its preparation?

Zafrullah Chowdhury: Firstly, there were too many mistakes in screening persons who came from abroad. They were not treated well. These expatriate Bangladeshis have brought in billions of dollars for the country, 15 billion dollars from January till October last year. Yet we have not treated them with the slightest of care. No wonder they are furious. Their anger drove them to take the risk and simply go home. Fining them is now the way. They need counselling and then they can undergo tests.

The Chinese ambassador from January has been cautioning that it was wrong just to focus on persons coming from China. I have also said that each and every one coming passenger coming from abroad must be tested. This mistake simply must not be repeated.

Secondly, vigilance along the border with India must be stepped up. A total of 50 million Indians work in 170 corona-afflicted countries. Hundreds of trucks are entering the country and the truck drivers are vulnerable. They must be tested.

Thirdly, our jails are overcrowded for various reasons including a large number of false and motivated cases filed by the law enforcement. A bold step must be taken here. Slashing events for the Bangabandhu's birth centenary was a bold step. I think another bold step should be taken in granting a general amnesty or parole to release convicts sentenced for 10 years and who have served much of their sentence, except those guilty of serious crimes such as murder or rape.

Fourthly, due to our weak criminal system, a polarised society and also due to our law enforcement including the police, our courts are always overcrowded. People coming to the court to attend any hearing, have to jostle in the crowds. This must change. The court rules must change. Thousands of people throng at the court every day. The petitioner and the accused can be allowed to go after individual hearing under Section 205.

Fifthly, attention must be paid to Rohingyas. We are sitting on a ticking bomb there.

Sixthly, there are our physicians and nurses. The British medical journal has said that they provide healthcare but do not have the habit of washing their hands.

Seventhly, the mosques must be used more effectively. Infrared thermometers must be used to check temperature as the people enter the mosques to pray and they must be told to maintain a distance from each other while praying.

There is no workforce at the rural health complexes. This can be remedied within three months, nationwide. I can do it within a month. The entire health system must be thoroughly reformed. No matter what the disease may be, everyone cannot be brought to Dhaka for treatment.

In the eighth place, taxes in hand gloves, infrared thermometers and others equipment must be exempted.

It would be wrong not to ensure all these factors before a lockdown or before deploying the army or using mobile courts to impose fines.

Q: What about reforms in the health sector?

Zafrullah Chowdhury: It is imperative to ensure that physicians and nurses remain at their workplaces. They need to be present round the clock in a building, whether in a village or a city. The moment a person has a cough or cold, he or she must be rushed to the nearest physician. The physician must carry out the required test immediately. Then they may say, you don't have corona, you have pneumonia. You have to be careful. But now they are simply dismissing patients, telling them, 'you don't have corona, we won't test you'. That is not the way.

Q: We want to know about reforms of the entire health system, not just related to COVID-19.

Zafrullah Chowdhury: Health must be taken to people's doorsteps. There are many easy things to be done which are not being done. Anaesthesia, for example. Then there is no workforce at the rural health complexes. This can be remedied within three months, nationwide. I can do it within a month. The entire health system must be thoroughly reformed. No matter what the disease may be, everyone cannot be brought to Dhaka for treatment. That is not how things should be.

Q: At the union level, there are only mother and child healthcare centres. Can't full-fledged hospitals be set up at that level?

Zafrullah Chowdhury: There are at least 500 health complexes, but these are not in a good condition. Half do not have electricity. It will take 2 million taka to fix each health complex. An 800 sq ft residential quarter must be set up at each health complex for two physicians. It is easy for the government to bear such expenses. After that the prime minister will ensure that the physicians stay at the villages.

Q: Where will the people in the village go to test for coronavirus? In Dhaka there are only 5 or 6 hospitals for coronavirus and 6000 isolation beds outside. Can things be managed with this?

Zafrullah Chowdhury: Even in Dhaka, where is there treatment? Other than the IEDCR certification, where is there treatment? It is as if the Almighty has only bestowed power upon this institution. You can run tests anywhere else. How can that be? There are thousands waiting to be tested, but they have around 1500 kits. Why are they holding on to those? Are these sweets, being kept for the VIPs? The government must change this mentality. They must simply carry out the tests for as long as they can. How are we using our experience? We have physicians, they aren't tending to the patients. They aren't treating coughs and colds using the excuse that they don't have protective gear.

Q: How can patients be prevented from fleeing, as one did from Suhrawardy hospital?

Zafrullah Chowdhury: The physicians and nurses must be trained. There are around 150,000 physician and 200,000 nurses and physicians in the country. All they need is an hour's training.

Q: Thank you.

Zafrullah Chowdhury: Thank you.

* This interview has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir