S'pore has to ensure biomedical advances benefit its people, are in line with its ethical stance: DPM Heng

Breathonix head of software and partnerships Chan Tiong Ley  demonstrating its non-invasive breath analyser for detecting indications of Covid-19 within minutes.
Breathonix head of software and partnerships Chan Tiong Ley demonstrating its non-invasive breath analyser for detecting indications of Covid-19 within minutes.PHOTO: ONG WEI QIANG

SINGAPORE - As Singapore pushes the frontiers of science and technology, it has to ensure that biomedical advances benefit its people and are in line with the country's ethical stance, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said on Thursday (June 17).

Mr Heng was speaking at a virtual public conference to mark the 20th anniversary of the Bioethics Advisory Committee here.

The committee, which was set up in December 2000, addresses the ethical, legal and social issues arising from biomedical science research in Singapore, and makes recommendations to the Government.

In his speech, Mr Heng noted how the country's research investments were visible when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, with Singapore mobilising its capabilities in the fight, including the development of diagnostic tests such as the Fortitude 2.0 polymerase chain reaction test kit. The kit is now used by more than 45 countries.

There are also the Breathonix and TracieX breath analysers, which are designed to detect the presence of Covid-19 within minutes.

He added that the biomedical sector continues to attract new investments during the pandemic, such as a manufacturing facility by BioNTech, one of the two companies behind the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Sanofi Pasteur has also set up a vaccine production centre to simultaneously manufacture multiple types of vaccines in Singapore.

Mr Heng also noted that rapid developments in human health and potential will open up new ethical frontiers.

"One scenario is that the use of artificial intelligence in biotechnology may one day enable scientists to influence human thought, emotion and behaviour. We must therefore proactively address such concerns at the outset," he said.

Singapore is already taking care to ensure that data confidentiality, privacy and security are maintained as it pushes the boundaries of innovation.

For example, the 15-member Bioethics Advisory Committee, which includes experts from the fields of law, medicine, religion and the media, is studying the need for additional safeguards when it comes to using digital solutions in biomedical sciences.

But there is also the need to consider how to better protect patient privacy, obtain informed consent and address third-party access and system governance, Mr Heng added.

He said Singapore recognises the importance of taking a more human-centric approach to research and innovation.

This is evidenced by its Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2025 plan, which sees the biomedical sciences domain here focusing on human health and potential, he added.

"This reflects our emphasis on using science in a way that will improve lives, and bring out the best in each and everyone of us," said Mr Heng.

One key priority under this domain is to understand how humans learn, function and perform at different stages of life, so that everyone can grow to their full potential.

A second priority, said Mr Heng, is to better harness data safely and securely to support healthcare and digital health innovation.

For instance, by expanding the National Precision Medicine research programme and developing its data infrastructure and capabilities, Singapore aims to use data to predict the risk of diseases upstream, better diagnose medical conditions, and develop targeted treatments with reduced clinical complications and costs.

Mr Heng said Singapore has made much progress in its biomedical sector in the past 20 years. But he added that as this sector of science advances, bioethics has become even more important - and the committee will have to confront a wider range of issues in the future.

He added: "With your continued commitment to maintain high ethical standards, I am confident that Singapore will not only be a thriving global node for biomedical sciences, we will be one that realises the full benefit of science and technology for the benefit of humankind."