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A Fellowship for Scientists in the Middle East Builds Safety and Security Across Borders

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Dr. Laith Al-Eitan during his CBFP fellowship at the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) in Weybridge, UK
Dr. Laith Al-Eitan during his CBFP fellowship at the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) in Weybridge, UK

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A Fellowship for Scientists in the Middle East Builds Safety and Security Across Borders

Monday, November 9, 2020

The Cooperative Threat Reduction Biosciences Fellowship Program (CBFP) aims to promote biological safety and security (BS&S) by increasing technical capacity for scientists in the Middle East, and to establish a regional network for sustainable cooperation on laboratory diagnosis and BS&S standards. Selected applicants conduct a fellowship for four to six months at an international host institution, where they receive training and exposure to laboratories, experts, and techniques. They then apply these practices at their home institutions when they return. CBFP is funded under the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s (DTRA) Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP). Since 2017, the program has been managed and implemented by Leidos and CRDF Global, providing fellows with a unique mentorship opportunity to expand their network and enhance their knowledge in the field.    

A few years ago, in a town in Jordan, a small girl contracted rabies from a stray dog. She succumbed to the virus a few weeks later, after medical professionals failed to provide the necessary postexposure care. This entirely preventable incident offered a stark warning of the costs of failing to prevent and prepare for biological exposures, even when the risks are well known. The experience made a powerful impression on Dr. Laith Al-Eitan, who was a student at a nearby university at the time.  

Last year, Dr. Al-Eitan was one of eight health professionals from Jordan and Iraq selected as a 2019-2020 CBFP fellow. In early 2020, Dr. Al-Eitan, an associate professor at the Jordan University of Science and Technology, began his fellowship at the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) in Weybridge, UK. Inspired by his experiences, he focused on establishing a biosecurity/biosafety curriculum at his home university. 

Although disease outbreaks like COVID-19, Ebola, and influenza take center stage in the news, other major zoonotic diseases (like rabies) continue to threaten populations worldwide and present biosafety and biosecurity concerns to the researchers who are seeking better diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines. “Over fifty thousand people die from rabies on an annual basis, a tragic number which highlights the significant global health gaps that must still be addressed,” says Dr. Al-Eitan. “As the WHO plans to eliminate dog-mediated rabies within the next decade, rabies research matters now more than ever, with each breakthrough bringing us closer to achieving this goal.” 

By helping to establish systems to prevent accidental exposures and protect pathogen stocks, Dr. Al-Eitan's work will protect researchers who are studying the zoonotic diseases that continue to affect Jordanians regularly, as well as emerging disease threats. Dr. Al-Eitan was also able to collaborate with APHA researchers to co-author two manuscripts titled “Whole-genome Sequencing and Phylogenetic Analysis of Rabies Virus Isolates from Multiple Regions of Jordan” and “Bat-borne Coronaviruses in the Eastern Mediterranean: A Looming Threat to Public Health.”  

Global Collaborations for Local Impact 

2019-2020 CBFP fellow Dr. Hana Alebous also focused her research on detection and diagnostic techniques for diseases that can spread between people and animals. An associate professor at the University of Jordan’s Biological Sciences Department, she spent her fellowship at Pennsylvania State University in the U.S., enhancing her technical skills in laboratory safety and studying effective responses to disease outbreaks. 

Dr. Alebous was motivated to apply for the fellowship by serious health threats in her community.  

“In my country, Jordan, biosafety and biosecurity constitute a major concern. As a result of the political instability in the region, refugee populations have increased. Living conditions at the camps often lack the proper hygienic environments, which can ultimately increase the prevalence of infectious diseases,” says Dr. Alebous. “In addition, particularly outside major cities, Jordanian citizens interact in their daily lives with different types of livestock and poultry that are considered, in turn, an inevitable source of zoonosis. These considerations necessitated my participation in this fellowship to benefit my country and humanity at large.”  

With support from her CBFP mentor, Dr. Alebous prepared a research proposal on molecular and genetic techniques to better understand disease spread in the Jordanian population and plans to seek funding and other collaborators. She is also looking to develop a curriculum related to biosafety and biosecurity at her home institution. 

Supporting Fellows Every Step of the Way 

International collaborative research can have tremendous benefits.  

“When fellowships end and fellows travel back to their home countries, they are expected to implement these practices in the workplace, promoting international standards, guidelines, and regulations, and therefore fostering a culture of responsible and ethical conduct in biological research,” said Senior Project Lead, Dana Awwad who manages CBFP at CRDF Global.  

But Dana and her team also recognize that being away from home and navigating a new country can be extremely challenging. While the fellows focused on lifesaving research, the CRDF Global fellowship team worked to ensure the health and safety of the fellows. This was especially important for the 2019-2020 cohort, as COVID-19 erupted in the middle of their fellowships. When countries declared their quarantine and travel restrictions, CRDF Global staff regularly reached out to host country embassies and relative ministries in Jordan and Iraq to ensure fellows maintained their legal status and that fellows were able to return to their home countries safely and as quickly as possible. The team led regular check-in calls to ensure fellows maintained a healthy mental status and lifestyle. 

The fellows returned home ready to collaborate with their local peers and international partners to build strong cultures of biosafety and biosecurity in the Middle East. “This type of fellowship is a great effort for building a sustainable agenda to improve global health security in all countries over the world,” says Dr. Al-Eitan. “Hopefully, this fellowship will serve as a cornerstone for improving the biosafety and biosecurity standards in my country and strengthen the ties between my home university and APHA.” 

Dr. Alebous says the fellowship shaped her perspective on international collaboration and biosecurity and biosafety, “I have new inspiration on how to bring CRDF Global’s vision, ‘Our world, healthy, safe, and sustainable,’ to my home institution and students.”