Covid-19 national testing lab can be repurposed for other infectious diseases outbreaks: A*Star

The Stronghold Diagnostics Lab used for Covid-19 testing can be deployed for future screening efforts.
The Stronghold Diagnostics Lab used for Covid-19 testing can be deployed for future screening efforts.PHOTO: A*STAR
The lab was set up to boost national PCR testing capabilities and has been operational since mid-2020.
The lab was set up to boost national PCR testing capabilities and has been operational since mid-2020.PHOTO: A*STAR
The Stronghold Diagnostics Lab is located in Biopolis, Singapore's biomedical hub in Buona Vista.
The Stronghold Diagnostics Lab is located in Biopolis, Singapore's biomedical hub in Buona Vista.PHOTO: A*STAR

SINGAPORE - The Covid-19 vaccination drive in Singapore is well under way, putting the country on track to a semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy. But the Republic is continuing to beef up its preparedness for infectious diseases of the future.

For instance, the Stronghold Diagnostics Lab used for Covid-19 testing can be deployed for other screening efforts in the future, said Professor Patrick Tan, founding programme director of the lab and executive director of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's (A*Star) Genome Institute of Singapore.

The lab was set up to boost national polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing capabilities and has been operational since mid-2020.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat toured the lab at Biopolis, Singapore's biomedical hub in Buona Vista, on Monday (April 12).

In a Facebook post on Tuesday morning, he thanked the scientists and researchers at A*Star and other research institutions in Singapore for their work, calling them "silent heroes" in the nation's fight against the coronavirus.

"They have made a real difference to our pandemic response. I was fascinated by their sharing of the science behind innovations such as the Fortitude diagnostic test kits, and cPass - the world's first serology test for neutralising antibodies," he said in the post.

Mr Heng, who chairs the National Research Foundation Board, added that he was glad that A*Star worked closely with Singapore's broader research and development ecosystem and private companies to develop these solutions for Covid-19 together.

"This strong partnership has been vital for Singapore's collective response to the pandemic, and it is important that we continue to strengthen and deepen the collaborations. In this way, we will be better prepared for future pandemics, including Disease X," said Mr Heng.

The need for testing

The Stronghold Diagnostics Lab was established by the A*Star and the National University Health System (NUHS), with Temasek Foundation as a strategic industry partner.

A*Star and its partners had been approached by the Ministry of Health (MOH) to contribute to national testing capacity.

Testing facilities at the lab, set up in repurposed laboratories at Biopolis, leverages A*Star's strengths in biomedical sciences with technology, such as in automation and smart sensing.

The clinical director and initial laboratory testing training was supplied by NUHS, while Temasek Foundation contributed towards testing instruments and diagnostic kits.

A*Star's Prof Tan told The Straits Times that the lab processes tests from a wide variety of sources and formats, including from the local community, dormitories and stay-home notice hotels.


Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat during a visit to the Stronghold Diagnostics Lab in Biopolis on April 12, 2021. PHOTO: A*STAR


Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat during a visit to A*Star in Biopolis on April 12, 2021. PHOTO: MCI

"We coordinate closely with MOH to respond and process samples based on current needs," he added.

Even though vaccinations are under way, testing for Covid-19 remains an important pillar of Singapore's strategy to control the coronavirus outbreak by preventing the seeding of new clusters.

This is especially since data has shown that people who have been vaccinated against or infected with the virus before can get Covid-19 again.

On Sunday, a migrant worker who had been vaccinated against Covid-19 was found to have been infected with the coronavirus. And earlier this year in February, Singapore's first case of Covid-19 reinfection was detected.

Singapore last year said it aims to conduct about 40,000 Covid-19 tests a day, and the latest figures from MOH's website showed that the testing rate over the past week now stands at about 34,800 tests a day.

"While Singapore's population is increasingly being vaccinated, the need for Covid-19 testing will still continue for the foreseeable future as Singapore further reopens and resumes activities," Prof Tan said.

The lab is manned by a specially hired workforce of over 150 staff from across the Singapore ecosystem, including volunteer scientists from A*Star, the universities, and medical staff from NUHS, as well as fresh graduates and professionals with relevant experience and qualifications.

"Besides providing jobs for Singaporeans, Stronghold Diagnostics Lab has also trained many staff in clinical diagnostics, increasing the local pool of skilled qualified staff for future pandemic contingencies. The lab's platforms are adaptable and can be deployed to other screening efforts in future, including for other infectious diseases," Prof Tan said.

A*Star said sustained national investments in research and development had enabled the rapid assembly of this highly qualified pool, which has prior expertise in fields like molecular biology, microbiology and diagnostics. All lab staff are required to undergo additional Covid-19 biosafety training and procedures for personal protective equipment.


cPass is the world's first serology test for neutralising antibodies. PHOTO: MCI

Leveraging technology

Mr Philip Lim, programme director of Stronghold and A*Star's chief risk officer, said the need for scale required the use of automation.

This included the use of laboratory automation systems like the Bio Rapid Automated Valence Engine, an A*Star initiative.

The system includes barcode scanning for the identification of samples, and custom robotic and automation systems for automated handling of test samples, including capping and uncapping of test tubes, and pipetting and movement of liquids.

A*Star said this helps to minimise human errors and reduce contamination and infection risks for laboratory staff, resulting in accurate, reliable and high-throughput testing processes within a safer environment.

Mr Lim said local small and medium-sized enterprises were involved in the assembly and roll-out of these automation solutions, which have also been delivered to other commercial labs in Singapore.

The average turnaround time for PCR tests is usually more than a day, from the time the samples are taken from a person to receipt of the results.

This is much longer than antigen rapid tests, which can deliver results within a matter of minutes. However, PCR tests are usually much more sensitive and accurate than antigen rapid tests, and are considered the gold standard for diagnosing Covid-19.

Asked the turnaround time for samples processed at Stronghold, A*Star's Mr Lim said: "(Stronghold's) processing time is well within industry benchmarks and the standards expected for testing facilities."