2021 Apr 22
Sri Lanka’s very own Professor Neelika Malavige is one of several distinguished scientists making notable strides in research in the fight against COVID-19. She holds a PhD in Immunology from the University of Oxford and presently serves as the Head of the Department of Immunology and Molecular Sciences at the Faculty of Medicine and as Director of the Centre for Dengue Research at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. Professor Malavige certainly did her and Sri Lanka proud as a member of the Oxford research team to develop a portable, cheap and quick COVID-19 antibody test. The international research team that she was a part of was led by a group of Oxford University scientists, including Professor Alain Townsend, Lisa Smith, Jack Tan and Pramila Riyaj, who carried over 3,000 assays as part of the major research project.
A Portable COVID-19 Antibody Test: What’s all the Buzz?
This breakthrough advancement in the fight against COVID-19 is notable because it involves an easy-to-produce test that can detect coronavirus spike-protein binding antibodies in people who have tested positive for the virus.
In layman’s terms, antibodies are large proteins that aid in our immune system’s fight against disease-causing organisms, one of which is the novel coronavirus. Both the infection with the virus as well as vaccines are able to generate antibodies. However, most commercial tests available at present are not just costly but require a central lab to conduct analysis. These limitations have especially become a barrier for low-income countries.
Interestingly, Oxford’s latest portable COVID-19 antibody test has helped in significantly reducing this limitation. According to the Research Team Lead, Professor Alain Townsend, from the MRC Human Immunology Unit at Oxford University, the test is very cheap to produce, and the team has been able to make use of existing funding from charitable donations for this purpose. With this, they have succeeded in offering ten million tests for research purposes to countries that cannot support very high-tech solutions. At present, the production of reagents for the tests is funded by the Townsend-Jeantet Charitable Trust. This advancement is set to significantly help boost access to COVID-19 research and testing in the Global South. In fact, the distribution of test reagents to other parts of the world has already begun and is carried out free of charge.
The test is not only easy to use, but requires minimal time because it is adapted to work on blood samples drawn from a method as simple as a finger prick. The test can link parts of the viral spike protein to the surface of red blood cells. The antibodies to the virus, if present, create a clump of red blood cells – big enough to be seen by a naked eye (see image below).
It is considered portable since the test requires minimal equipment and is guaranteed to produce accurate results with a less than one per cent false positive rate. Professor Alison Simmons, who is the Director of the MRC Human Immunology Unit at Oxford University, also commented on this breakthrough, stating that the test is set to increase the protection of more people globally and significantly control the spread of the virus.
These tests have been supplied to researchers in twenty-one countries. Among them, Norway, Colombia, Taiwan and Sri Lanka are presently conducting major studies using this test. The research team that Professor Malavige is a part of also hopes to adapt it to identify persons who have successfully generated the antibodies after a vaccine in comparison to those who may need a booster.
More on Professor Neelika Malavige
Professor Neelika Malavige has been at the frontlines in the fight against COVID-19 through her efforts to not only advance COVID-19 research but also to use her expertise to set down the facts and dispel certain myths related to vaccine scepticism that had been making the rounds amid this public health crisis. Under her direction, the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura decided to increase the frequency of lab testing with assistance from the World Health Organization after concerns about new variants from the UK and South Africa arose in the island. Professor Malavige also cautioned that more mutations of the virus are likely to emerge, and the possibility of a ‘Sri Lankan variant’ cannot entirely be dismissed. However, she assured that vaccines that are being tested and approved at the moment can be modified to deal with new variants if the need arises.
In a video campaign organised by the United Nations in Sri Lanka, Professor Malavige shared that her journey in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) began with an interest in scientific research at the age of six. After receiving her MBBS at the University of Colombo, she received a PhD scholarship from the University of Oxford, where she earned a DPhil in Immunology.
Commenting on the challenges faced by women scientists working in STEM, Professor Malavige acknowledged that women “have it very hard” with challenges associated with juggling family commitments and balancing their career. She emphasised that having a supportive partner is incredibly important because it helps and determines how women can succeed in their career.
In her message to Sri Lankan women and girls who aspire to engage in the field of STEM, Professor Malavige urged parents to encourage narratives that show how women can work and study hard despite the many challenges and other commitments that come their way.
Professor Neelika Malavige has certainly made Sri Lanka proud and is an inspiration to women and girls who hope to join the field of STEM in the coming years. In the spirit of endearing support, we at Pulse wish her the best of luck and success as she takes our country to new heights in the field of scientific research.