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An Unsung Heroine in Serbia’s COVID-19 Battle 


peiwen1.jpgCheng Peiwen

The COVID-19 pandemic may have changed the world, but not the many virtues that are held dear to the heart of humanity, such as helping out friends in need, even when miles apart.

With this spirit in mind, Cheng Peiwen, Head of Technical Support at BGI Genomics, led a team of five young BGI professionals to travel the 8,500 km (5,300 miles) to Serbia in April 2020. Their mission was to provide training to 40 local experts on the testing and biosafety procedures regarding the operation of the Huo-Yan Laboratory located in Belgrade, the capital of the European country.

At the dawn of the epidemic, testing and detecting the virus was the first crucial challenge faced by many countries. In response, BGI rapidly developed the Huo-Yan Laboratory, an integrated high-throughput nucleic acid testing laboratory solution that could meet the growing demand for virus testing. However, the solution also needed well-trained medical staff to ensure safe and smooth operations. That was where the team led by Cheng came into play.

However, the efforts of Cheng did not go without costs. With her family in Wuhan, the city hardest hit by the pandemic in China, she had been combating the disease since the beginning. When she finally had an opportunity to spend a moment with the people she treasured most, after close to two months of tireless work, she made the choice of embarking on this international mission, painfully leaving behind her loved ones and local colleagues for a greater purpose.

“My family supported my decision, though not without their worries,” said Cheng. “After all, it was not an easy assignment, especially during a period of heightened uncertainty. But at the same time, I was proud that our experience and expertise could take a pivotal role in the international battle against the pandemic. I really felt a sense of responsibility.”

In Belgrade, the work was equally tiring and satisfying. The team often worked almost around the clock, alongside their Serbian partners. Cheng was always the one to stay until the last minute every day, to ensure the last batch of testing samples were completed. The unremitting efforts of her and her teammates earned not only the respect, but also the friendship of the Serbian experts. The requirements and recommendations of Cheng were all taken into account seriously. 

20220624095924281.jpgCheng (in the middle) teaches local laboratory staffs at Serbian Huo-Yan Laboratory.

“Despite the hard work, we were very touched by the kindness of the local colleagues,” said Cheng. It was our first time visiting Serbia. I still remember one night, when the technical supervisor of the laboratory took us for a drive to see the beautiful city, at 3am after our work. He introduced to us the capital and the country passionately.”

Thanks to the contributions of Cheng and her teammates, before they departed from the country, the daily testing throughput of Serbia reached a stable volume of 5,000 to 6,000, of which more than one-third were handled by the Huo-Yan Laboratory in Belgrade. Much to the joy of the team, Serbia was also able to lift the state of curfew as the pandemic was increasingly under control. As a token of gratitude, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić personally held a farewell ceremony for the team at the National Palace. 

“If I could choose again, I would still make the same decision,” said Cheng. “Staying in my hometown to fight the disease is of course something worthwhile to do, but contributing our expertise to the friends around the world adds even more meaning. Wherever there is a need for me, I would have no hesitation to go.”

Sticking to this belief, Cheng followed the footsteps of the Huo-Yan Laboratory after the success in Serbia, to a number of other countries in need, including Kazakhstan, Oman and the United Kingdom. Her journey will never cease until the day humanity claims complete victory over this crisis.