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COVID-19 research in doubt

Jakarta Post - January 5, 2022

Jakarta – The government's recent move to centralize all its research institutions under the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN) has been met with a barrage of criticisms, but President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo is adamant about the plan.

As 2021 drew to a close, the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology, one of the research arms joining BRIN, announced that it was letting go of 71 contract researchers and lab analysts, while offering them the option to join the new institution under BRIN.

But there have been doubts that in the new structure the government will maintain the independence and resources that had made the institute one of the most sophisticated research facilities in the country.

Established in 1888 and named after Christiaan Eijkman, a Dutch physician who received a Nobel Prize for discovering the cause and cure of beriberi, a disease caused by malnutrition and untreatable at the time, the institute's compound in Central Jakarta was a military hospital that was prepared to investigate the disease.

The research facility continued to be the beacon of health research after Indonesia's independence. Over the years, it has hosted pioneering research on lethal viruses like HIV, bird flu (H5N1), Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (SARS-Cov1) and SARS-Cov2, the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It has state-of-the-art devices, among them Real Time Polymerase Chain Reactor (RT-PCR) technology and genome sequencers that have helped the country study the coronavirus' local variants and developed the homegrown Merah Putih vaccine.

The vaccine is currently under trial and is slated to be released this year and incorporated as a booster shot. But with the disruption caused by the organization restructuring, many doubt that the vaccine development will remain on track or meet the required standards.

The research facility, for example, will be moved to Cibinong, West Java, south of Jakarta. And with no certainty that more than half of the researchers and lab analysts will join the new structure, there have been concerns not only about the future of the researchers, but also the prospect of the first local vaccine and COVID-19 studies in the country.

In the past, the institute has also gained a reputation that has made it eligible for cooperation and funding from international donors. There is no certainty that these donors will continue the partnerships. In the future, all funding and cooperation must gain approval from BRIN, the formation of which has been deemed by many as the politicization of science. BRIN, for one, falls under the supervision of a steering committee headed by former president Megawati Soekarnoputri, chairwoman of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P).

There have not been any significant achievements in the country's research and science in general, meaning the restructuring under BRIN may be necessary. But the government, especially President Jokowi himself, should take a closer look at the degree of change that the move causes. While it may not improve science, it could derail the achievements of a reputable and strategic research institution like Eijkman.

And this comes at an unfortunate time, when, after so many wrongs, 4.26 million infection cases and over 144,000 deaths, the government has started to control the pandemic.

Source: https://www.thejakartapost.com/opinion/2022/01/04/covid-19-research-in-doubt.htm