6 scientists in Singapore who have pivoted to Covid-19 related work

PHOTOS: NTU SINGAPORE, ARIFFIN JAMAR, DESMOND WEE, JASON QUAH, TIMOTHY DAVID, A*STAR

SINGAPORE - Meet six scientists in Singapore who have pivoted away from their areas of expertise to Covid-19 related work.

Prof Stephan Schuster: Analysing air and surface samples to find virus traces


PHOTO: NTU SINGAPORE

Professor Stephan Schuster is an environmental detective. Like his crime-solving counterparts, the professor at the Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) School of Biological Sciences looks for what is unseen to the naked eye.

This has come in useful during the Covid-19 pandemic, as humanity battles an invisible foe.

His work involves taking samples from the air and surfaces, and analysing them to find traces of genetic material of organisms like viruses. Both environments are ultra-low biomass environments, meaning each sample might have only a few micrograms of genetic material, said Prof Schuster, who is also deputy centre director for facilities and capacities at NTU's Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering.

"Nevertheless, the (genetic material) recovered from these samples is very complex, as they originate from many different microbial organisms," he said.

Prof Schuster and his colleagues got cracking. They found in a study pending publication that air pollution could result in negative outcomes for respiratory illnesses, including those with Covid-19.

The Straits Times had earlier reported that microorganisms in the air measure between 0.5 and 10 microns and are likely to reach deep inside the lung tissue. Those with pulmonary diseases may be unable to expel them.

Prof Schuster said they could pivot during the outbreak because of the completion of a five-year research programme on the air microbiome, his skilled co-workers and the availability of tools like air samplers.

"This crisis has proven that scientists all over the world are able and willing to swiftly move to new fields and to apply their knowledge," he said.

Assoc Prof Tham Kwok Wai: Knew from previous work about virus spread indoors


ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

At the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, healthcare professionals and policymakers were stumped on many fronts. A key question was how the coronavirus spread from human to human.

Researchers like National University of Singapore (NUS) Associate Professor Tham Kwok Wai leapt into action, tapping their previous work.

Prof Tham, who had studied the spread of viruses such as influenza in an indoor setting, found that the indoor environment was also a primary domain for transmission of the virus that causes Covid-19.

Because of his previous research, he knew there were measures that could control its spread indoors. For instance, increasing ventilation of a room will help to dilute the concentration of the virus in the air, reducing transmission risk. Safe distancing also works, as the viral load diminishes with distance from the infected person, he said.

Passing re-circulating air through high efficiency filters can help to remove viruses that usually "clump" together, said the professor from the NUS School of Design and Environment.

Before Covid-19, Prof Tham's research had focused on the impact of the indoor environment on humans, and on cooling and ventilation technologies for indoor environmental control.

"I began to see how I could apply my research on environmental intervention to Covid-19 at the onset of the pandemic, around December 2019," he said.

Prof Tham said tackling the outbreak requires researchers with various expertise.

Other than virology, for instance, knowledge in aerosol science or fluid mechanics could also help with better understanding of how expelled droplets could spread.

Prof Tham said: "This demonstrates how a trans-disciplinary approach is essential in tackling the Covid-19 challenge holistically. And this constitutes the basis for policy formulation."

Prof Lim Chwee Teck: Developing a PCR test that can yield results in an hour


ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Professor Lim Chwee Teck has spent the bulk of his career developing microfluidic biomedical devices, which analyse tiny amounts of fluids to detect diseases such as cancer. But when the Covid-19 crisis was rapidly worsening early this year, he switched to Covid-19 diagnostics.

"We felt we had to do something despite the fact that we had not worked on flu viruses previously," said Prof Lim, director of the National University of Singapore's Institute for Health Innovation & Technology.

Since March, he and his team have developed a portable polymerase chain reaction (PCR) diagnostic system that can produce test results within an hour, and he is currently developing a rapid antigen test kit that can detect Covid-19 within 15 minutes.

The portable PCR kit, called Epidax, uses a specially designed microfluidic chip to process a smaller amount of a nasal swab sample to detect Covid-19 faster.


The portable PCR kit, called Epidax, can produce test results within an hour. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

A reagent is used to extract the RNA and amplify it on the chip, so the PCR test can be done.

"All these features significantly minimise sample handling and shorten the test and waiting time, so patients can get their test results in about an hour or less," said Prof Lim.

In conventional PCR tests, the nasal swabs are sent to a lab to extract the RNA before the test can be done. Those taking a conventional PCR test usually have to wait a day or two for their results.

So far, clinical tests with Epidax have shown 100 per cent accuracy in detecting Covid-19.

Prof Lim hopes that his faster and portable PCR system can be used for rapid screening and mass testing in places such as clinics, schools and offices.

The team has filed a patent for Epidax, and has licensed the technology to a local medical technology company.

Prof Marcus Ong: On a data-driven mission to support health system


ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

At the onset of the pandemic, Professor Marcus Ong realised that the unprecedented outbreak would not just impact infected patients and front-line healthcare workers.

The virus could put the whole healthcare system, hospitals and all patients under pressure, either directly or indirectly.

To help cushion the impact of the relatively unknown virus on the healthcare system, Prof Ong - senior consultant at Singapore General Hospital's Department of Emergency Medicine - turned towards his research interests in data science and simulation modelling.

Said Prof Ong: "We saw an urgent need to use data to support our health system's response to Covid-19, in order to protect our patients and our healthcare system."

He is speaking from experience, having lost some of his friends and colleagues to severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003.

"We realised how important a comprehensive, whole-system response was in order to protect the health system from being overwhelmed and to save lives."

Since February, his team has been building computer simulation models based on the pandemic to improve healthcare policies in areas such as resource allocation and business disruptions.

"The virtual outbreak model can be further developed to address different disease outbreak scenarios in the future, and will also enhance our national response to future epidemics," said Prof Ong.

A recent study published by his team found that Covid-19 medical literature written in the early days of the outbreak was focused mainly on clinical elements and diagnosis.

Big-picture issues such as the outbreak's effect on the mental health of healthcare workers and how it affected the care of non-Covid-19 patients, as well as the use of novel technologies, were initially under-explored.

Prof Peter Preiser: Malaria research helped him devise paper test for Covid-19


ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

Using his expertise in malaria research, Professor Peter Preiser of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) developed a paper test to detect viral proteins produced by the Sars-CoV-2 virus.

The professor of Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology did this by adapting technology he had created to differentiate between types of malaria parasites, knowing there would be a need for reliable diagnostics and a rapid response in a crisis like Covid-19.

The result is a cellulose-based paper test which is able to recognise Sars-CoV-2 proteins in a patient’s blood sample. If the viral proteins are present, the paper strip changes from white to blue in 10 minutes.

Prof Preiser, who is the Co-Lead Principal Investigator of the Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) inter-disciplinary research group with the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (Smart), developed the COVID-19 test kit in collaboration with Smart researchers.

He produced two versions: a serology test which is able to recognise antibodies from past Covid-19 infections; and a rapid antigen test, which is able to detect antigens to identify those who are infected with Covid-19.

Prof Preiser, who is also the Associate Vice-President for biomedical and life sciences at NTU, said that the tests would only cost “a few dollars” and are able to yield fast results, making them suitable for mass roll-outs.

For instance, the serology test could potentially be used for pre and post vaccinations, to ensure that priority is given to those who have not been infected before, and also ensure that the administered vaccine has been effective.

Conventional serology tests can take between two and 24 hours when performed in a lab, he noted.

The team is now looking at the possibility of using a “finger prick method” for blood collection, and the possibility of a saliva test for comfort and convenience.

“The success of the Covid-19 tests has given us a lot of confidence in (our) technology and provided us with a lot of information on how we can use the same approach to detect other bio markers (for other) infectious diseases,” said Prof Preiser.

Dr Yang Yinping: Scientist analyses Twitter trends surrounding Covid-19


PHOTO: A*STAR

Social technologist Dr Yang Yinping has a passion for building and applying technology to advance human communications.

She has conducted research in areas like sentiment analysis and emotion recognition, which have useful implications for public health.

For instance, in 2013, she co-led a project to examine social network activities during the H7N9 bird flu outbreak, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health.

Most recently, the principal investigator and group manager at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s (A*Star) Institute of High Performance Computing started examining people’s sentiments during the Covid-19 pandemic, using an algorithm system which examines social media posts on Twitter.

To date, more than 124 million worldwide tweets have been collected and processed. They are analysed according to four emotions – fear, anger, sadness, and joy, along with the course of events contextualising these feelings.

For instance, “fear” was the overriding global sentiment when the virus first surfaced, followed by “anger”, which peaked on March 12, a day after the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 virus as a pandemic.

She said these feelings should be monitored closely, as they offer insights into concerns faced by the community.

But sentiments often vary across countries, perhaps owing to each government’s response to the pandemic, among other factors, added Dr Yang.

In Singapore, for instance, “joy and other positive emotions” overtook initial feelings of “fear” from March 30 onwards, suggesting a sense of pride, gratitude and relief, she noted.

In the coming days, Dr Yang anticipates stronger sentiments of joy, in response to positive news of a vaccine and other treatment developments.