Nevio Sarmento is a microbiologist on the frontline of Timor-Leste’s COVID-19 response. He is also a PhD student at Menzies studying the serotypes of pneumococcus (Streptococcus pneumoniae) in pneumonia and malnourished children under five who are admitted to the Paediatric Department at Hospital Nacional Guido Valadares, Dili, Timor-Leste.


It is frontline workers, such as Nevio, who are integral to the COVID-19 response around the world. As a microbiologist he runs COVID-19 tests at the National Health Laboratory (NHL).


Why did you decide on a career in health and research?

I have always wanted to help people, that is my character. In Timor-Leste, the health problems especially infectious diseases are still a big issue and to have a career in health is a massive advantage. As a microbiology scientist, I am fascinated with the evidence and to be able to provide a good reliable result for doctors to treat patients, gives me satisfaction and extra motivation.


In Timor-Leste, many people do not have the opportunity to do health research and I am extremely lucky to be able to do this with Menzies. I know I am just at the beginning of my research career, but I have great mentors and supervisors who will guide me to the finish line.    


What is your current role at the National Health Laboratory? In particular, your role in the COVID-19 response?

As a microbiology scientist I was trained to use polymerase chain reaction (PCR) in Thailand, where I designed a multiplex PCR primer to identify resistant genes in strains of Enterobacteriaceae (Extended-Spectrum β-lactamase (ESBL), AmpC and New Delhi Metallo-beta Lactamase (NDM). The principle to test for COVID-19 is the same, so to be able to incorporate PCR knowledge from bacteria to identify the virus is helpful.


My role at NHL is microbiology scientist and biosafety officer. My day-to-day work is to ensure the routine microbiology work is delivered during this pandemic and ensure the renovation of NHL, especially that the microbiology and PCR lab is running according to the schedule.


Whenever the PCR lab require assistance, I offer my service by either doing extraction, master mixing or running the test itself. With the upscaling of testing, our microbiology lab also offers its space for the viral extraction and recently Menzies introduced rapid COVID-19 PCR testing. All the PCR work is done in collaboration with Mr Ismael Barreto, Menzies Timor-Leste COVID-19 technical advisor and Dr Ian Marr, an infectious diseases physician and microbiologist at Menzies.


What changes have been made at NHL to adapt and test for COVID-19?

NHL is the centre for COVID-19 testing. The sample collectors and PCR lab scientists and technicians are all based at NHL. Everyone works alongside the surveillance department at the Ministry of Health to ensure quarantined and/or suspected persons are tested and results are disseminated to the COVID-19 crisis response centre.


Menzies helped NHL by providing the testing kits for quantitative reverse transcription PCR testing as well as consumables and personal protective equipment to ensure everybody is protected while working.


Menzies is also implementing DFAT approved aid to expand the PCR lab to respond to COVID-19. This coincides with Fleming Fund Country Grant renovation plan, allowing more space (rooms) to be made available to NHL.


When did you first start working /studying with Menzies?

When I returned from Thailand after my microbiology training in Mahidol University, I realised that the need for microbiology service was high, yet the service offered was very basic. A few Timorese technicians and I started to upgrade the service and in early 2016, I met Dr Josh Francis and started to collaborate with Menzies. This meeting has led to excellent progress in microbiology service upgrades, research and training. Through this collaboration, and with support from the STRONG TL project, I applied for the research training program scholarship at Charles Darwin University and in 2019, I started my PhD studies at Menzies.


How have Menzies and the National Health Laboratory worked together to combat COVID-19?

Menzies has been working side by side with the NHL since the beginning of the pandemic by providing technical support, reagents and consumables as well as ensuring the result is delivered in time to the COVID-19 crisis management centre. With the upscaling of testing and expansion of testing to the districts especially in the border region, Menzies is currently assisting the NHL and the Ministry to prepare the training materials and technical expertise to ensure the rapid PCR testing can be done on site.