Feature: Chinese "Fire Eye" helps Serbia detect coronavirus
2020-05-03 19:10 | Xinhua


A Chinese expert from Chinese biotech company BGI Group tests an automated sample preparation system at the Fire Eye laboratory in Belgrade, Serbia, April 20, 2020. As Serbia expands its COVID-19 testing to better trace and contain the coronavirus, Chinese technology is giving a helping hand with state-of-the-art equipment. (Xinhua/Shi Zhongyu)

BELGRADE, May 2 (Xinhua) -- As Serbia expands its COVID-19 testing to better trace and contain the coronavirus, Chinese technology is giving a helping hand with state-of-the-art equipment.

The new Fire Eye lab in Belgrade, the brainchild of Chinese biotech company BGI Group, has been receiving more than 2,000 samples per day since Wednesday.

By enabling Serbia to significantly boost the daily testing capacity to around 6,000 samples from last week's average, the lab helps authorities realize that the spread of the virus has been weakening, allowing it to decide on the gradual relaxation of strict measures and reopening of the economy.

By performing 96,637 tests since the beginning of the epidemic, Serbia had reported 9,362 cases of COVID-19 infection, with a death toll of 189 as of Saturday.


BGI-developed Fire Eye Lab had been used in Wuhan, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in China.

The "Fire Eye" was named after a Chinese fable about Monkey King, who could spot devils in disguise with the "pupil of the eye."

According to BGI, the Fire Eye, a nucleic acid testing lab, is a robot that extracts nucleic acid automatically, 10 times faster than a lab operator and with a smaller margin of error.

It uses a barcode marking of samples, in order to eliminate mistakes, and it has a biosafety level P2 or BSL-2, meaning that its precautions include limited access, specific training in handling pathogens, negative air pressure isolating the lab from its surroundings and other measures.

The lab in the Serbian capital emerged with miraculous speed. An agreement was signed at a virtual ceremony on April 12, and three days later, the equipment arrived from China. On April 20, Chinese experts started training their Serbian colleagues to work on the equipment.

"From the arrival of equipment on April 15 to the opening on April 20, we built this lab in merely 5 days," Xiong Tao, vice president of BGI Global Development, told Xinhua.

Dr. Ana Djordjevic, from the Institute for Biological Research "Sinisa Stankovic", told Xinhua: "This is very important for Serbia because before we haven't had a lab with these technical possibilities ... It's not only the first lab of its kind in Serbia, but in the whole Balkan region."


Djordjevic is head of a team of 10 experts from Serbia's top institutes, hospitals and medical universities, who have been working alongside Xiong and five other BGI experts for three weeks to learn to operate the "Fire Eye" lab.

The team has been on the task in four shifts, working for 16 hours every day -- from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. the next day -- for the past three weeks. When they recently got first samples, emotions overwhelmed them.

"This is the only laboratory in Serbia with this kind of bio-safety level, which makes people feel protected. On the other hand, it gives Serbia the chance to process a large number of samples in a short time," Djordjevic said.

Serbian experts said the advanced technology of the "Fire Eye" lab helps standardize the testing process for COVID-19, ensure the accuracy of testing, streamline the process, and protect the safety of staff.

At a press conference on Friday, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic thanked the experts of BGI, as well as other Chinese companies like Mammoth Foundation and Zijin Copper which had made donations for the labs.

"We have been processing a fantastic number of tests lately ... We will test even more people ... because we want to provide treatment to our people, and not let them die. We couldn't have done it without the BGI," Vucic said.


The "Fire Eye" lab in Belgrade is the first of two to be installed by BGI in Serbia. The project is worth over 700,000 euros (776,615 U.S. dollars), of which around 570,000 euros are donated by Chinese companies.

The second lab, soon to be installed in the southern city of Nis, will perform around 1,000 coronavirus tests a day, the Serbian government said. With these two labs, Serbia's daily testing capacity will be doubled.

It has become a consensus of scientists and experts that large-scale testing can help discover coronavirus carriers early and prevent those who are asymptomatic from spreading the virus.

Besides helping Serbia build up its response against COVID-19, the construction of the two "Fire Eye" labs, as well as future plans for cooperation with the BGI, is set to strengthen the country's healthcare system.

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, who personally oversaw the project, said at the opening of the Belgrade lab on April 20 that "this is not only of immense importance for Serbia in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic, but also a fantastic foundation ... for the future of our healthcare."

"These new capacities will place us among the top two countries in the region when it comes to the scale of testing ... It will also enable us to test samples for antibodies and to determine the resilience of our population to COVID-19," Brnabic said.

Dr. Jelena Begovic, director of the Institute of Molecular Genetics and Genetic Engineering of the University of Belgrade, agreed that the laboratories will help improve the Serbian healthcare system.

"As far as I know, this is a unique laboratory in Europe and it will assist in the future for research and diagnostics of different epidemic events and diseases. We already set up a plan on what we will do in the future when it comes to research and diagnostics -- with the help of BGI from China," Begovic said.

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