Research on COVID-19 at NU

COVID-19 simulator for Kazakhstan

NU’s Institute of Smart Systems and Artificial Intelligence (ISSAI) has developed a stochastic epidemic simulator that uses real data, ranging from population density to health care capacity for each region of the Republic of Kazakhstan to predict the dynamics of the spread of COVID-19 in the country.

The spread of the disease between different geographic regions of Kazakhstan is modeled based on air, railway and highway connections between nodes. It can be used to visually show the current situation and to project the ongoing impact, which can be used to facilitate government decision-making and allocation of resources. In the future, this simulator can enable the modeling of disease suppression and mitigation measures, such as limiting travel and quarantining a region, on both localized and national basis, – says Dr. Atakan Varol, Director of the ISSAI.

In the simulator, Kazakhstan is represented as a graph of 17 connected nodes (14 oblasts and 3 cities of Republican significance) where each node runs a separate epidemiological model – showing the SEIR (Susceptible, Exposed, Infectious, and Recovered) individuals. It shows the spread of the disease based on various scenarios consisting of different parameters such as initial number of the exposed in a node, daily quarantine rate of the exposed, hospital capacity of a region, daily infected to severe infected transition rate, and more. The parameters can be adjusted for each region. Depending on the parameters, the simulator can generate results for different scenarios and the spread of the disease can be visualized on an interactive map.

The ISSAI provides a series of video tutorials on how the simulator can be used, adapted, and improved by others. The detailed information is available on the main webpage of the project (  

DNA of recovered from COVID-19 patients

Scientists from the National Laboratory of Astana Nazarbayev University are planning to study the DNA of individuals who have had COVID-19 in Kazakhstan. Currently, protocols for biomaterial intake are being developed and blood collection in hospitals has been started. All works with primary material will be carried out in the laboratories licensed to work with infected material.

In particular, scientists of National Laboratory Astana plan to study DNA of patients with coronavirus infection, to sequence complete genomes of patients with coronavirus and genomes of coronaviruses themselves to understand the infection’s clinical course and various presentations in humans.  Scientists of the National Laboratory Astana Nazarbayev University have the necessary equipment, infrastructure, and relevant research experience at their fingertips to successfully perform such task. (Read more here). 

The early detection of coagulation imbalances in COVID-19 infection using microfluidics chip for extracellular vesicles

Natalie Barteneva, Alexander Tikhonov

Though there is no consensus on the pathogenesis of blood clots development at COVID-19 infection, it seems that the clots might be responsible for a significant share of COVID-19 related deaths, including deaths at home. I guess this is one of the top leading causes of complications and fatalities at COVID-19 patients. Addressing coagulation problems at an early stage can help clinicians lower the mortality and complications risk of COVID-19 patients. Our research goal is a test development for early detection of coronavirus patients with a high probability of complications. We will use a combination of microfluidics and extracellular vesicle detection.

There is a great challenge for the science community to get anti-coronavirus medicine quickly and make it available for billions of people. A price and availability can become limiting factors like it happening now with a remdesivir from Gilead Sciences with a price tag of more than 3,000 USD for five days of treatment. Personally, I have great hope for repurposing of long-existing drugs like famotidine, a long-known heartburn relief H2-receptors blockator. Famotidine had promising results in New York hospitals’ study and for ambulatory treatment. In such cases as with famotidine, practically non-toxic well-known medication available without prescription in any Kazakhstani pharmacy, emergency approvals for repurposing, and guidelines modification from authorities should be considered.

Early differentiation of potentially complicated coronavirus cases and early therapy of these patients can be critical for coronavirus treatment outcome.

Crisis, Risk, and Uncertainty in Modern Eurasia

Caress Schenk

The project looks at the relationship between political authorities and citizens in the context of Coronavirus. It seeks to understand the sources of information citizens believe about the virus and how the government responds to the virus and to citizens’ views. The project looks at the types of policies and public awareness campaigns the government initiates and will pay special attention to policies, messages, and citizens’ views about eventual vaccines against coronavirus. 

Clinico-epidemiological assessment of COVID-19 infection in Kazakhstan

Paolo Colet, Antonio Sarria-Santamera, Berdakh Abibullaev, Amin Zollanvari, Azliyati Azizan, Byron Crape, Chee Kai Chan, Alpamys Issanov, Nancy L. Stitt, Dmitriy Viederman

The team has gathered a multi-professional group of researchers, including clinicians, epidemiologists, microbiologists, geneticists, and data scientists.

Clinicians and public health professionals but also the general public both in Kazakhstan and around the world are struggling because of the tremendous variability in the presentation of the COVID-19 infection: from absolutely asymptomatic cases through extraordinary severe cases of hyper-immune bilateral pneumonia and respiratory failure and coagulopathy which have mortality higher than 30%.

The team wants to understand why this infection shows such tremendous heterogeneity. They will use data from patients who have contacted the disease as well as from people who have been exposed to the virus and did not develop the disease and try to identify factors which may increase the risk or be protective to develop such different grades of this disease. 

Understanding the different patterns of infection will help the public health authorities and clinicians to develop and implement selective confinement or quarantine and control of outbreaks. Eventually, it would help hospitals provide quality and efficient health services to individuals who have COVID-19 and those at risk. 

The research would help to see the patterns of infection and create preventive measures to specific individuals and population groups. As we understand the characteristics and patterns of disease, hospitals might use the information to develop specific management for individuals infected with COVID-19. And for the Ministry of Health or local health authorities to develop specific preventive measures and control future outbreaks.

Development of a diagnostic test for the detection of human antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19)

Gonzalo Hortelano, Christian Schönbach, Timo Burster, Yerlan Ramankulov, Dimitri Poddighe 

The aim of this project is to develop an antibody test for COVID-19 that will be used to monitor who in the Kazakh population has been infected and who has developed an immunity to COVID-19 (i.e. someone who was infected with the corona virus SARS-CoV-2 and is now virus free stays healthy when exposed a second time to the virus). This information is critical for the government to determine when and how to open the economy without having an unexpected new increase in infections. This test will also identify the significant number of asymptomatic cases in the population, individuals who are unaware that they were infected because they never experienced COVID-19 symptoms. 

The research itself is not aimed at developing a vaccine. However, the project will identify the components of the coronavirus that can induce antibody-mediated immune protection in the Kazakh population, which may suggest potential vaccine strategies for Kazakhstan based on the tools used in this research project. A test is expected to be developed by the end of 2020 and will be tested on Kazakh blood samples and further optimized during 2021.

Rapid Detection of SARS-CoV-2 Spike Glycoprotein Using an Electrochemical Impedance Sensor

Damira Kanayeva

There are no vaccines yet and certain drugs available to treat COVID-19 patients, therefore, early diagnosis and detection of SARS-CoV-2 are important to contain the outbreak. The proposed study will try to close this gap by having aptamers as biorecognition elements in the SARS-CoV-2 sensor development that will drastically decrease the cost of the technology as well as bring following advantages such as rapid detection, reusability, stability. The performance of the SARS-CoV-2 S glycoprotein sensor will be further evaluated in artificial nasal fluid sample spiked with SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and/or heat inactivated SARS-CoV-2 strain.

The researchers believe that the outcome of this proposed study will have a high social and economic impact not only in Kazakhstan, but also at a global scale as the development of rapid and sensitive detection tools has become increasingly critical nowadays. Moreover, the methodology and sensor that will be developed in the proposed study could be adapted to other emerging infectious diseases. The success of the methodology will also give an opportunity to further explore the area by making the sensor commercially available device as a good way to diagnose COVID-19 at early or latent stages in the future. 

Battling host proteases to prevent productive infection by SARS-CoV-2 and severe complications of COVID-19

Timo Burster

Multi organ failure is the severe outcome of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). The spike protein of the severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) binds to the host cell protein, which is called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), and is important for entrance of the virus into the cell for infection. Additionally, the transmembrane serine protease 2 (TMPRSS2), which is an enzyme digesting proteins like the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2, supports the entrance of SARS-CoV-2 into the host cell. Cells of the immune system, like neutrophils, infiltrate to the site of infection and release proteases, such as cathepsin G, for an immune response. On the downside, uncontrolled cathepsin G activity is responsible for cardiovascular diseases and thrombosis, which are severe complications in COVID-19. Inhibition of the proteolytic activity of cathepsin G as a plausible treatment and will be investigated.

This research will address whether: 

  •  The use of natural inhibitors for cathepsin G will possibly interfere with the severe outcome of COVID-19. 
  •  Cathepsin G might digest the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and its novel variant   SARS-CoV-2 (D614G) in order to promote infection. Inhibition of cathepsin G would be the logical consequence to interfere with host cell infection by SARS-CoV-2.
  •  Natural protease inhibitors can interfere with the proteolytic activity of TMPRSS2, which could prevent infection by SARS-CoV-2. 
  •  Such inhibitors could be natural medications to prevent productive infection by SARS-CoV-2.

The impact of the covid-19 pandemic on trade credit, delinquency and firm dynamics in Kazakhstan

Giulio Seccia

The world economy lockdown following the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in several dimensions, from the nature of the cause to the magnitude of the policy measures taken by governments. An assessment of its impact will take time, especially in separating transitory from permanent effects. 

The strain on firms’ finances that eventually might lead to their default and market exit is among the permanent damages that can be predicted with some confidence. This might be particularly true for emerging economies. In this project, the researchers will investigate the impact of the policy measures adopted by the Kazakhstani government to mitigate the effects of COVID-19. This project will focus on trade credit, possibly the most significant form of short-term finance for businesses worldwide when acquiring input goods.

The researchers will build a quantitative framework for the analysis of firms in order to investigate the factors that determine trade credit, debt, delinquency, bankruptcy and liquidation, and size for Kazakhstan firms.  In evaluating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated lockdown measures in Kazakhstan, the rates of business survival, employment, exit and entry, allocative efficiency, and aggregate GDP will be studied. Subsequently, the team will be able to provide an assessment of the extent of the crisis and of the contribution of disruptions to trade credit, delinquencies, and bankruptcies in the economy and, in hindsight, evaluate the role played by policy actions. Ultimately this will provide useful lessons to confront possible new waves of the pandemic in future.

Developing an App for analyzing the cough types

NU has  also applied digital technology to develop a new application (to be downloaded for free on mobile phones) to allow individuals to sign up and record any clinical symptoms which may be related to  COVID-19 infection and other respiratory diseases.  In addition, sections have been added related to physical isolation and mental health associated symptoms, which will be recorded anonymously and independently of diagnosis. The data acquired will support the users self-evaluation of symptoms and help healthcare professionals and scientists to better understand the evolution of COVID-19.