Science Talk

Covid-19 and the coming of age of Singapore science

The worst of times has brought out the best in people.

Particularly so on the research front, where scientists in Singapore have made their mark on the world stage.

Biotech firm MiRXES, for one, switched gears as early as January, working with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research and Tan Tock Seng Hospital to shift its expertise in cancer detection in another direction - to create kits that could sniff out the virus instead.

With six years of experience under its belt producing PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests, the company was able to come up with its Fortitude Covid-19 test kits within three weeks.

Fast and highly accurate, the PCR tests are considered to be top of the line.

With the support of Enterprise Singapore's Enterprise Development Grant, the company quickly scaled up production of kits to one million per week through automation, and these have since been deployed in 45 countries.

Likewise, hundreds of doctors, scientists and researchers from all fields have thrown their weight behind the battle against the virus - with efforts ranging from 3D printing of test swabs to creating the award-winning contact tracing programme TraceTogether, as well as coming up with treatments and a possible vaccine.

Indeed, Singapore was only the third country outside of China to successfully culture the coronavirus, and local researchers have contributed more than 1,100 papers on Covid-19 and Sars-CoV-2, which causes the disease.

When it comes to Covid-19 research, Singapore is punching above its weight, and others are taking notice.

All this is a far cry from even a decade ago, when researchers here lamented that the pressure to deliver economic returns took precedence over more intangible long-term gains in say, healthcare or education.

There was also a widespread belief, even from within, that local science was not up to scratch, and criticism that groups worked in silos, with little collaboration among teams and disciplines.

Concerted efforts throughout this pandemic have put many of these worries to rest, underscoring the impact of local research, and the community's crucial ability to work together and change tack during an emergency, something that has been possible only because of many prior years of research and experience.

People have also been able to see, at first hand, the value of science in saving not just lives but also livelihoods.

The billions of dollars pumped into research and innovation have been a worthwhile long-term investment.

Last Friday, the Government endorsed the efforts of researchers at the forefront of the pandemic fight, and again pledged its support for research and innovation.

It announced a $25 billion plan to chart Singapore's research landscape over the next five years, including a critical investment to shore up its defences against future infectious disease threats.

In many ways, 2020 has marked the coming of age of Singapore science, a milestone more than two decades in the making.

It is science which will help the Republic emerge from the grip of Covid-19, and to survive and even thrive, in an increasingly uncertain world.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2020, with the headline 'Covid-19 and the coming of age of Singapore science'. Subscribe