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From Australian labs to Nepal’s COVID-19 frontlines: Dr Sameer M Dixit

Posted: 13 August 2020

Nepal, Alumni, COVID-19, Impact,

In the brightly lit laboratories at Australia’s University of Wollongong and Western Sydney University in the 1990s and early 2000s, Dr Sameer Mani Dixit learnt to diagnose and understand pathogens and diseases. While pursuing a master’s degree and PhD in biotechnologies—which are life sciences, including molecular biology, immunology and microbiology—Sameer conducted molecular and immunological diagnostic methods such as Polymerase Chain Reaction testing. He examined firsthand how viruses mutate and studied how the body defends itself through antibodies, killer cells and helper cells.

Fast forward to 2020 in central Kathmandu: Sameer’s Australian education has equipped him to be at the forefront of Nepal’s response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. “COVID-19 is all about infection via virus. The knowledge that I acquired from my master’s and PhD degrees from Australia allows me to understand virology, bacteriology and our human immune system,” Sameer explains. “This has given me a bigger picture of what we are seeing with COVID-19 right now.”

As co-founder and Director of Research at the Centre for Molecular Dynamics Nepal (CMDN) and Intrepid Nepal Pvt Ltd, Sameer has worked for more than 13 years on molecular research, diagnostics and testing, particularly in the public health sphere. He secures research funding and ensures optimal project work, managing and guiding 50 to 200 researchers at any given time.

With some of the most advanced technology in Nepal, including a next-generation sequencing facility housed at Intrepid Nepal’s laboratories, CMDN conducts COVID-19 surveillance and research and is a leader in surveillance of any virus or bacteria that can affect the human population.

Sameer is a strong proponent for collaboration between the government, non-governmental organisations and the private sector in dealing with the current COVID-19 crisis.

At the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, Sameer and his team gladly provided assistance to the Nepal government, supplying its National Public Health Laboratory with training, human resources and personal protective equipment kits.

Mr KP Sharma Oli, Nepal’s Prime Minister (right), with Dr Sameer Mani Dixit (left) taking part in a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office regarding COVID-19. Photo credit: Rajan Kafle

“Basically, from the very beginning, we have been helping the government empower itself,” Sameer says.

Sameer has also assisted as a member of the Health Emergency Operation Centre COVID-19 Team formed by the Ministry of Health and Population, served in a COVID-19 Advisory Team at the Ministry of Science and Technology, and in May 2020 was invited by Nepal’s Prime Minister to participate in a select response group.

Sameer is a well-known figure in Nepal. He actively engages with media and uses social media platforms to spread awareness and information about COVID-19. With more than 130,000 Twitter followers, his messages are always far-reaching. Sameer also writes for leading newspapers in Nepal, including the Nepali Times and the Kathmandu Post, and hosted a daily morning television show before the COVID-19 national lockdown. Realising the power of media, Sameer explains, “I am very careful not to scare people. That is why the information I provide is based on real facts rather than on prediction and estimation,” explaining that estimates often go completely wrong, especially when models from developed nations are applied in developing country contexts. Sameer additionally works with professional societies and organisations in Nepal and internationally, sharing knowledge about COVID-19 over Zoom sessions and Facebook Live.

Given Sameer’s view that Nepal’s COVID-19 peak is yet to come, he perceives that the largest immediate challenges are to conduct more research and analysis to determine where Nepal truly stands in the face of the global pandemic, and to understand how to minimise the virus’s community impact.

Quarantine measures must be strengthened, and testing capacity increased and accelerated. Everyone must be made aware that the simple measures of handwashing, mask wearing and physical distancing are vital to prevent community transmission.

For his part, Sameer plans to continue his efforts to help Nepal face the COVID-19 pandemic by promoting existing technology for virus detection and helping the Government of Nepal with genomics studies of the virus to promote greater understanding of its pathways and mutations. In early July, his organisation detected the virus causing COVID-19 in sewage samples in the Kathmandu valley—a method to identify community transmission and larger-scale infection in the community. He and his team are also part of a government epidemiology project, collaborating with the World Health Organization in Nepal to study the seroprevalence—the presence of antibodies—in Nepali citizens over the past three to four months. This is part of a seven-country study spanning Europe, Africa and Asia that will reveal the true nature of COVID-19 infections.

A vocal and impactful biotechnologist, Sameer credits his success to the long days and nights he spent in Australia’s laboratories. “In Australia, what I learnt was hands-on,” he says.

“Whatever I learnt was not only theory. It was working with animals, working with the lab, working with people that gave me a clear picture of biological processes happening around me. If I had studied in some other countries, I might have learnt the theories and some part of lab work, but in Australia we were talking real-life scenarios. We learnt to diagnose actual pathogens using full-scale laboratories. I was in the lab day and night developing sero-diagnostic kits for real diseases. It has been 15 years since I returned to Nepal, but what I learnt is so useful even today. It has helped me immensely in what we are facing right now with COVID-19.”

As an Australian alumnus, Sameer maintains regular contact with his Australian colleagues. He has received three international alumni awards: Australian Alumni Award for Community Service from the University of Wollongong in 2012, International Alumni of the Year Award from Western Sydney University in 2017 and Alumni Award for Social Impact 2019 from the University of Wollongong.

Sameer will be supervising a Western Sydney University doctoral student and is planning to facilitate a partnership with the University of Wollongong in which his organisation will welcome Australian students and researchers in Nepal. He looks forward to implementing both plans when the COVID-19 situation allows.

Using knowledge, technology, resources, media, networks and community, Sameer is applying biotechnology to Nepal’s everyday reality at both the individual and organisational levels, in the COVID-19 situation and beyond.