Coronavirus pandemic

Coronavirus: Dental group, biotech firm to provide 20,000 free tests

Cell biologist Ong Siew Hwa, director and chief scientist at Acumen Research Laboratories with a diagnostic kit that her company has developed for the coronavirus.
Cell biologist Ong Siew Hwa, director and chief scientist at Acumen Research Laboratories with a diagnostic kit that her company has developed for the coronavirus.PHOTO: ST FILE

It started with one company's altruistic intentions and grew into a partnership for a greater good.

Q&M Dental Group had approached home-grown biotechnology firm Acumen Research Laboratories (ARL) to ask whether it produced diagnostic test kits, as the dental company wanted to purchase and donate them to people affected by the coronavirus, such as foreign workers.

ARL was already producing test kits at the time, and its director and chief scientist Ong Siew Hwa promptly agreed to sell Q&M the kits at little or no profit.

It was her way of helping those in need and a form of "national service" to the country, she said.

The idea was mooted early this month and the two firms aim to provide 20,000 free tests in total to groups who need them.

Q&M, which is paying for the tests, will do the swabs at its clinics and send them to ARL's laboratories for the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.

"It wasn't meant to be a form of business, we just wanted to do our bit to help," Dr Ong told The Straits Times.

This also laid the foundation for a deeper joint venture. Q&M said in a statement last Thursday that it is investing about $3 million to build a new Covid-19 testing business via a joint venture with Dr Ong.

Inadvertently, the coronavirus pandemic has also made Dr Ong famous abroad.

Her company manufactures and sells diagnostic test kits to other countries, but some of her partners overseas do not know how to use the kits or the PCR machines that detect the viral load in a sample.

To help them, Dr Ong filmed herself using the machines and shared the videos with them so that they could learn how to use the equipment.

"I made the videos in English, and they added subtitles and shared the videos with everyone else," she said.

Among the versions are those with Bahasa Indonesia and even Spanish subtitles.

"They told me that I am now famous in their country," Dr Ong said with a laugh.

Clara Chong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2020, with the headline 'Dental group, biotech firm to provide 20,000 free tests'. Subscribe