ST Citation for Asians of the Year 2020

(From left) Prof Zhang Yongzhen, Major-General Chen Wei and Dr Ryuichi Morishita.
(From left) Prof Zhang Yongzhen, Major-General Chen Wei and Dr Ryuichi Morishita.PHOTOS: CHINACDC.CN, AFP, REUTERS
(From left) Prof Ooi Eng Eong, Celltrion chairman Seo Jung-jin and Serum Institute of India CEO Adar Poonawalla.
(From left) Prof Ooi Eng Eong, Celltrion chairman Seo Jung-jin and Serum Institute of India CEO Adar Poonawalla.PHOTOS: SHINTARO TAY, CELLTRION, SERUM INSTITUTE OF INDIA

As the dark shadow of Covid-19 stalked homes, offices, schools and cafes in Asia, a group of superheroes emerged in white lab coats, powered by science and wielding syringes. Collectively, they are Asia's virus busters.

In a feat that has no parallel in medical history, vaccines were developed, tested and even administered within months of the coronavirus outbreak in late 2019. Arriving with a banner of promise not yet unfurled by drugs and other treatments, the vaccines are today the starting point in the trajectory from despair to hope.

On Jan 3, a sleepless team led by Professor Zhang Yongzhen, 55, worked through two nights to sequence the first complete genome of the virus at the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre which they shared with the world, opening the door to vaccine development.

China's earliest vaccine entered clinical trials two months later, led by Major-General Chen Wei, 54, and her team at the PLA Academy of Military Sciences.

In Japan, Dr Ryuichi Morishita, 58, of Osaka University, and in Singapore, Professor Ooi Eng Eong, 53, of the Duke-NUS Medical School, surmounted the initial hurdles and are testing their vaccines on volunteers. Theirs are among the around 50 vaccines in clinical trials worldwide.

But creating vaccines at warp speed is only the start of a very long journey.

After miracles in petri dishes, the next act calls for heroism from manufacturers and businessmen. Billions of doses need to be produced in pristine factories, at a scale and speed never attempted, challenging even Asia's celebrated manufacturing prowess. Time is ticking away and winter is closing in. The virus attacks in waves that cannot be foretold, and no one is safe until everyone is.

Celltrion chairman Seo Jung-jin, 63, who once borrowed from loan sharks to fund his start-up, is going flat out at what is now one of South Korea's largest pharmaceutical companies. He aims to deliver an antibody treatment that will complement vaccines and be available to two million patients annually.

Mr Adar Poonawalla, 39, at the helm of the world's largest vaccine producer, the Serum Institute of India, has committed to producing 200 million doses for low- and middle-income nations in Asia and Africa. Mr Seo and Mr Poonawalla have answered the call, joined by many others, to inoculate Asia's 4.6 billion people.

Sars-CoV-2, the virus that has brought death and hardship to the world's largest and most populous continent, is meeting its tamer in the virus busters.

But the search continues for the one vaccine that provides them all: immunity that lasts years, not months, safety from side effects, portability from shore to shore and availability to the poorest citizen.

The Straits Times Asian of the Year award honours a person, group of people or an institution that has made the news and contributed significantly to their society, country or the wider Asian continent.

In recognising the Asian virus busters for the ninth ST Asians of the Year award, we salute your courage, care, commitment and creativity. In this peril-filled hour, you are a symbol of hope for Asia, indeed the world.


Past recipients of The Straits Times Asian of the Year award

2012

Myanmar President Thein Sein

2013

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

2014

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi

2015

Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (awarded posthumously)

2016

"The Disruptors": Grab co-founders Anthony Tan and Tan Hooi Ling, Flipkart co-founders Binny Bansal and Sachin Bansal, Gojek founder and chief executive Nadiem Makarim, Tencent Holdings founder Pony Ma and Razer co-founder Tan Min-Liang

2017

Chinese President Xi Jinping

2018

"The First Responders": Singaporean paraglider Ng Kok Choong (awarded posthumously), Indian Navy helicopter pilots P. Rajkumar and Vijay Varma, Indonesia's national disaster management agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, Singapore's Mercy Relief, and Jakarta-based Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management

2019

Indonesian President Joko Widodo