Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at Launch of the Duke-NUS Centre for Outbreak Preparedness on 10 June 2022.
Mr Goh Yew Lin,
Chairman, Duke-NUS Governing Board,
Professor Thomas Coffman,
Dean, Duke-NUS Medical School,
Dr Mark Suzman,
CEO, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Professor Kenneth Mak,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am very happy to be here today.
As a global community, we have learned many hard lessons over the past 2 years. The official death toll from COVID-19 stands at over 6 million.
The real death toll is estimated to be about three times higher – closer to 20 million people. This is comparable to the estimated total fatalities during World War One.
But this is not the final tally. The Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 sub-strains are behind fresh waves of infection.
In many parts of the world, the pandemic is now largely under control.
Global attention is shifting to managing the fallout of the Ukraine crisis, global supply chain disruptions, and the risk of another global recession.
But we cannot afford to take our eye off COVID-19. Neither can we afford to take the foot off the pedal in preparing for the next pandemic.
If we are distracted from this pandemic and in preparing for the next one, the repercussions can potentially be devastating.
Such is the nature of infectious diseases. The next epidemic is not a matter of if but when.
The chances of pandemics are now higher because of the destruction of natural habitats and climate change.
In fact, some studies show that Southeast Asia is most at risk of the next pandemic – due to higher population density, environmental changes, shifts in human-animal interaction and increasing human mobility.
All these could increase the potential for zoonotic pathogens to trigger a regional or global outbreak.
The specific characteristic of each pandemic is different, but the fundamental approach of combating each one is the same.
First, it requires us to strengthen surveillance, not just domestically, but across borders, for the virus does not respect territorial boundaries.
Global initiatives such as GISAID allow us to track mutations in known pathogens and helps with early detection of variants of concern. Singapore played a useful role in setting up and maintaining the genomic database of COVID-19, together with others around the globe.
But other forms of surveillance are needed for novel emerging infectious disease threats. This is a point that I will circle back to later in the speech.
Second, diagnostics is a critical pillar in pandemic response. The ability to test at scale is important to contain or slow the spread of the disease.
Singapore was one of the first few countries to develop a PCR test kit for COVID-19. The Fortitude PCR test kit, as it is known, is now widely used around the world.
In addition, the first surrogate viral neutralizing antibody test in the world for COVID-19 – cPass – was developed right here at Duke-NUS.
Third, is the ability to protect individuals from the spread of the virus and the effects of an infection. Therapeutics and vaccines are essential to shortening the duration of a pandemic, and reducing the severity of disease and death.
During COVID-19, vaccines were developed in record time. And some of these vaccines are remarkably effective in reducing fatalities.
In fact, with mRNA vaccines and therapeutics such as monoclonal antibodies, the fatality is coming close to the common flu.
Fourth, pandemic response goes beyond medical and scientific interventions. As important is personal hygiene, mask wearing, and exercising social responsibility.
Our people in Singapore have done remarkably well on this front. In fact, many continue to wear masks in settings that are not mandatory.
These habits will likely fade with time as safe management rules are relaxed. But we must ensure that these can be dialed back up rapidly should the next pandemic strike.
Overall, pandemic preparedness requires eternal vigilance and continuous investment, year in year out. It requires us to learn from each pandemic and unlearn some past practices. So that when the next one strikes, we are ready.
Singapore was one of the countries affected by the SARS epidemic in 2003. It was a harrowing experience. But we learnt from this episode and built up new capabilities, including NCID, which opened shortly before the current pandemic. These capabilities made all the difference in our fight against COVID-19.
We invested significantly in R&D over the decades as part of our Research, Innovation, Enterprise or RIE plans. It was on the foundations of decades of investments, that we could quickly develop the Fortitude and cPass kits early in the crisis.
Building on our strong research foundation, we established the National Programme for Research in Epidemic Preparedness and Response, or PREPARE.
The programme draws on learnings from Singapore’s overall R&D response during the pandemic. Even as we were fighting the current crisis, we are laying the foundations for better preparedness against the next one.
PREPARE seeks to support and strengthen essential research capabilities, translational platforms, and expertise that could further strengthen early detection, diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccine development in Singapore.
One of the important lessons in our R&D response is that our researchers could make a difference, only because everyone worked together. In line with this, PREPARE will actively promote collaborations among researchers across Singapore, in areas of R&D that contribute to epidemic preparedness.
While PREPARE is hosted by NCID, the executive director is from Duke-NUS – Prof Wang Linfa. The program also brings together the many different stakeholders across institutions in Singapore.
More recently, Duke-NUS is working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop the Asia Pathogen Genomics Initiative, or APGI. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has committed more than US$2billion to combat COVID-19, including ensuring equitable vaccine access to low and middle-income economies through the COVAX Advance Market Commitment.
I agree with Bill Gates that the world got lucky with COVID-19, as it could have been way more fatal. So I am glad that the Foundation is also investing significantly to prevent the next one, including through the APGI.
APGI can help to address a key gap in pandemic preparedness which I highlighted earlier – the surveillance and early detection of novel emerging infectious diseases in South and Southeast Asia.
Through genomic surveillance, researchers can better monitor the evolution of pathogens and alert the world to emerging epidemic threats.
The APGI is work in progress, but has the potential to significantly strengthen pandemic preparedness in the region.
Duke-NUS is further contributing to pandemic preparedness with the setting up of the Centre for Outbreak Preparedness. This new Centre will support the work of the APGI. As we heard from Prof Coffman earlier, it will also contribute to research collaboration in Singapore and the region.
Let me conclude. We cannot take our eye off COVID-19. Neither can we take our foot off the next pandemic. If we are distracted, the repercussions can potentially be devastating. The death toll could be that of another World War or greater.
Duke-NUS has been at the research forefront of infectious diseases. You have made significant contributions to combating COVID-19, working in partnership with NCID and other partners.
Duke-NUS is now working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on genomic surveillance for the region and has set up a new centre to further contribute to outbreak preparedness.
I look forward to seeing more good work from Duke-NUS and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in time to come.
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