They call them Thailand’s “virus hunters” – a team of specialist scientists who identify emerging diseases.
Since January, the group of 20 experts from the Thai Red Cross Emerging Infectious Disease Health Science Centre have had one main mission – to help the government detect the new coronavirus.
It’s a 24/7 operation and 1,500 specimens have already been analysed at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok since last month.
They range from repeat screenings of positive cases to any of the people patients may have been in contact with.
So far, of the 25 people in the country who have tested positive for the virus, nine have already been discharged from hospital.
As we stand outside one of the dedicated laboratories, more samples arrive in white boxes with bright biohazard labels.
They are carefully unpacked and catalogued before being brought into another lab where the scientists are dressed in hazmat suits.
Goggles and masks protect their faces, while blue plastic sleeves cover their shoes and gloves shield their hands.
The virus they are receiving is still live and potentially deadly, so they need to kill it before they can extract the DNA and confirm whether it is the new coronavirus or a different infection.
Their expertise means they’ve already managed to cut the waiting time for results down from almost two days to about three hours.
“The early detection and the fast reporting of the results is not just good for patients, it’s also good for the government so if it is positive they can find the other contacts and not make the disease spread,” virologist Dr Supaporn Watcharaprueksadee told Sky News.
An expert in her field, she’s previously examined bats, monkeys and rodents for the sources of coronaviruses, influenzas and ebola.
In January, Dr Watcharaprueksadee identified Thailand’s first case of the new coronavirus.
The lab is one of only two in the country testing positive samples, while others screen potential sufferers.
The Thai government has said it is confident it is able to control the situation in Thailand.
Some of the measures taken to stop coronavirus include thermal scanners and screening at airports, a public awareness campaign and a deep clean of public transport and taxis.
But the virus doesn’t recognise borders – and to stop its global spread, authorities say countries need to work together and share information and expertise.
The virus hunters’ work not only detects new cases but could also help with future treatments.
“We also characterised the genome of the coronavirus and right now the genome can be used to design the medicines, the drugs and the vaccines more correctly and we also use this genome to monitor the mutation,” she says.
This is important because if the virus mutates it may react differently to any vaccine which is later developed.
It may also cause the illness to become more or less severe.
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The central role the team plays in combating the virus means there are no days off and little rest.
“It’s very busy,” says medical scientist Teerada Ponpinnit. “After the outbreak I’ve only had four or five hours to take a nap.”
That’s a gruelling schedule given there are potentially months of this crisis left to run – but she and the rest of the team say they’re proud of their work.
They know the research here isn’t just adding to local knowledge but can be shared with experts around the world as Thailand plays its part in the global fight against this new threat.
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