BGI China partners Serbia - From prenatal tests to agriculture | CGTN


CGTN reporter Natalie Carney visited Serbia, including Serbia's first genome sequencing center, in partnership with BGI Genomics, a gene test company from China.

The close friendship between China and Serbia might not appear obvious, but the more time I spent in the Balkan country, the more quickly I came to understand why Chinese President Xi Jinping referred to their “brotherly bond” as “profound.”

It truly is a relationship built on mutual benefits.

One of my focuses on this visit was to explore the bilateral cooperation in medical research and development.

I was aware of China’s support in Serbia’s fight against COVID 19 – from the delivery of over a million vaccine doses early on to protective medical equipment to doctors, China has been there for Serbia.

Mirjana Novkovic explaining the importance of genome sequencing in battling COVID-19. /CGTN

Even through infrastructure, China has helped build a Sinopharm vaccine factory in Belgrade, while Chinese biotech firm, Beijing Institute of Genomics (BGI), helped construct two “Huo-Yan” testing laboratories, to help expedite COVID-19 infection detections.

BGI then donated millions in equipment for the development of the country’s first genome sequencing center, where SARS-CoV-2 is now being “dissected” to understand any “genomic mutations,” said Mirjana Novkovic, the head of the COVID-19 sequencing line.

“We are following new lineage and variants of COVID-19 which appear here in Serbia. If something emerges, we will announce it, and then we will see how to approach this new variant and whether it’s harmful or not.”

Sequencing allows scientists to determine the entire genetic makeup of a specific organism or cell type, which can then help them track the spread of a virus, diagnose or treat disease, and develop more effective drugs or vaccines.

It can also be used in agriculture to produce more predictive seeds, for instance.

The work being done by BGI and Belgrade’s Institute of Molecular Genetics and Genetic Engineering for this center is a “precious collaboration,” according to the institute’s director Dr. Jelena Begovic.

“We learned a lot from them, really, because we didn’t have experience with such a big challenge. This is one step forward for us in science, in bio-med and bio-tech. The colleagues from BGI really helped us a lot. I think this is only the beginning of our actual collaboration.”

During a 2016 state visit to Serbia, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the plant and spoke of the two countries’ “friendship of steel,” saying that by “fully leveraging our strengths and increasing the competitiveness of the company, the Smederevo Steel Mill is bound to be revitalized and play a positive role in increasing local employment, improving people’s living standard and promoting the economic development of Serbia.”

Waiting to board the train from Belgrade to Novi Sad. /CGTN

Enhanced infrastructure to help facilitate these exports was next on the list of projects between the two countries, which led me to Novi Sad, Serbia’s second largest city.

To get there I took the comfortable “fast train” from Belgrade in only 34 minutes.

This newly opened travel option trumps the 1.5-hour car journey between the two major cities, fellow passenger Marko said.

“This is my third or fourth time on this line, and it so much easier now. I don’t have to focus on driving, I can check my cellphone or my laptop.”

It was also the first time on the fast train for Belgrade resident Duda Rogic.

“It is fabulous. I’m going to meet some friends for lunch. This line is very important for working people, but also for us who travel for pleasure.”

This line is the second portion of a $370.4-million fast train rail network between Serbia’s capital Belgrade and Budapest, the capital of neighboring Hungary.

Once complete, these 342 kilometers of track will connect the Balkans with the European Union in less than three hours, benefitting cargo and passenger traffic.

Qi Fengran, deputy general manager for Serbia China Railway International, at a construction site. /CGTN

At the newly renovated Novi Sad station, I met Qi Fengran, who is helping to manage the Serbian track work for China Railway International, which is running this project along with China Communication Construction Corporation.

Qi said that eventually 14 tracks will run through here, 12 to service the local communities and two that will be dedicated for the fast trains to the border with Hungary.

“The second phase of Novi Sad station will be done by early next year and for the whole project (on the Serbian side), we think it will take at least around three and a half years.”

Qi told me another team is designing and preparing the work on the Hungarian tracks from Budapest.

“The project is a connection between China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative and the European development strategy. So, this also can develop and strengthen the friendship and cooperation between China and Europe and boost the local economy,” Qi said.

For me, this project really highlights the mutual benefits of China-Serbia cooperation.

Not only does it help facilitate exports, including China’s, across the region, but also upgrades Serbia’s infrastructure in line with EU benchmarks.

After four days in the country, it was time to go home. While I could have easily stayed longer, I was satisfied. Not only had I learnt more about the rich and sometimes painful past of the Balkans, but I was also excited for the potential in their future – thanks to that time-honored “friendship of steel” with their reliable partner, China.

Source: CGTN