Pradeep’s 16-hour days during secondment to help island during Covid fourth wave
As Covid-19 cases soared to their highest levels in September, the Bermuda Government was already looking overseas for help.
Cases of the virus skyrocketed from 290 at the start of the month to 1,238 by September 14.
The island’s fourth wave of infections, driven by the Delta variant, threatened to swamp the Molecular Diagnostics and Research Laboratory.
Carika Weldon, the lab director, struggled to get through a test backlog – and qualified staff in countries such as the United States or Britain were all busy with the same thing.
But an appeal for support from David Burt, the Premier, happened to reach 35-year-old Pradeep Ambrose, a Cornell University graduate with a PhD in the study of RNA viruses such as SARS-CoV-2.
Dr Ambrose’s one-month stint in Bermuda would not only allow MDL to get to grips with thousands of PCR tests for the virus, it also helped put the island ahead of the curve for quick tests to track down the freshly emerged Omicron variant of the coronavirus within an hour of a test being delivered.
Dr Ambrose, who is now on holiday with relatives in India, described the experience for The Royal Gazette after it was highlighted this month in the Cornell Chronicle.
Dr Ambrose, who worked at MDL from September 21 to October 30, said: “It’s fair to say I’m on call if needed.”
The link to Bermuda came about not long after Dr Ambrose graduated from a one-year masters in business administration course at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management.
The father of Danielle Boris, a classmate, belonged to a professional network with Stuart Lacey, the head of the Bermudian-based tech firm Trunomi, who is on friendly terms with Mr Burt.
Dr Ambrose said: “Mr Lacey conveyed Premier Burt’s request on that professional network’s social media, which Danielle’s father saw.
“Danielle’s father then said he vaguely remembered that his daughter had a virologist friend, and figured it might be worth connecting us.”
Dr Ambrose knew little about Bermuda before he received his friend’s text message.
He said: “Then I was mostly packing and getting stuff ready, so I didn’t really get a chance to find out much.”
He added: “Given my total lack of experience there, I’d say my biggest shock was how beautiful Bermuda was when I got there.
“I really had no idea what to expect.”
Dr Ambrose set to work to clear the test backlog.
PCR tests were all too familiar from his PhD programme at Cornell Medical School.
But Dr Ambrose said the 16-hour days at MDL “did get tiring”.
He added: “It was a bit easier than the 19-hour days Carika was pulling just a bit earlier – but still.
“I would feel bad at feeling exhausted, too – we had an incredibly hard-working and resilient staff at MDL.”
Dr Ambrose admitted: “I very rarely had days this long during my PhD, and never several such days in a row.”
Dr Weldon soon delegated government responsibilities to Dr Ambrose.
He was in remote meetings with Mr Burt as well as Ayoola Oyinloye, the Chief Medical Officer, and Kim Wilson, the Minister of Health, inside a week.
Dr Ambrose’s first day on the job coincided with the apex of the fourth wave, at 1,612 cases.
By the end of his Bermuda shift, deaths from the virus were still rising, but the island’s infection numbers had tumbled to 171.
Dr Ambrose’s decade at Weill Cornell as a student had also put him on friendly terms with Christopher Mason, a professor of genomics, physiology, and biophysics who mentored his student research on the sequencing of viral variants.
He said the possibility of getting Cornell’s help with Covid-19 sequencing came up during a health ministry meeting.
Dr Ambrose added: “Dr Ayo thought it was a great idea and asked me to follow up on it.”
Dr Mason linked up with Dr Weldon and forged a partnership at an ideal time for Bermuda as the coronavirus generated new variants.
The collaboration brought nanopore medical technology to Bermuda that put MDL in a position to identify the new Omicron variant just as it reached Bermuda.
Dr Weldon said earlier this month, after the first Omicron infection was detected, that MDL staff were “elated” at the lab’s new capabilities.
Dr Ambrose had his first face-to-face meeting with the Premier on his final day in Bermuda.
Mr Burt’s letter of appreciation told him: “You are a great friend to Bermuda, and we thank you again for all that you have done.”
Dr Ambrose told the Gazette he was happy to pitch in with remote work – and had done so while Dr Weldon was busy sequencing the latest Omicron variant samples.
He added: “I’d love to help out whenever there’s a surge.”
His virology PhD is now far more in demand than when his studies began in 2012.
Dr Ambrose said: “I’m still in the virology science field for now – and no one’s going to be against that.”