SINGAPORE - Asean countries need to work together and invest in scientific research so they can come up with treatments and vaccines better tailored to their populations in future pandemics.
In a panel discussion on the role of research in public health at a Special Ministerial Conference for Asean Digital Public Health on Wednesday (Oct 6), experts at the forefront of tackling the Covid-19 pandemic mooted various ways Asean could work together, from creating a network for clinical trials to sharing data, to enable it to respond swiftly to future threats.
For instance, it took less than a year from the time the Sars-Cov-2 virus was sequenced genetically to when an mRNA vaccine was licensed for emergency use.
"But the background was that there has been 20 years worth of research into mRNA vaccines that enabled us to do what we did in 11 months," said Professor Ooi Eng Eong, from the Emerging Infectious Diseases Programme at the Duke-NUS Medical School, who moderated the panel discussion.
"There's the need for a quick investment in basic research, so in a time of crisis, we have the building blocks to do something with the science," he told reporters after the discussion.
The hybrid event of in-person and virtual participants brought together speakers such as Ms Angela Brady, Asia-Pacific director of research and development at GlaxoSmithKline, Dr Richard Hatchett, chief executive of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, and Professor Tikki Pang, visiting professor at NUS' Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.
Prof Ooi said Asean countries need to have better cooperation and coordination with each other as well as with other regions because of how different their ethnicities, contexts and infrastructure are with the rest of the world.
"This means that the way in which medicine and vaccines are delivered also needs to be contextualised; otherwise what might work in one country may not work for other countries," he added.
In addition, certain populations may experience side effects when administered certain drugs or vaccines, said Prof Teo.
For example, epilepsy drug carbamazepine is more likely to cause adverse side effects in South-east Asians.
One way to improve collaboration would be to set up a regional network for clinical trials of new drugs and vaccines so as to ensure that all countries are on the same page, said Prof Ooi.
Given how heterogeneous and racially diverse South-east Asia is, having countries band together to share data and information could help in providing information on whether a particular vaccine would be effective, for example.
"We can then also look at developing vaccines that would work. For instance, it may be as simple as taking the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine and making one or two mutations (to suit our population)," he added.
Better collaboration among Asean countries can also position the region as a more attractive site for international clinical trials, noted Prof Ooi.
Another practical solution which can be achieved through regional collaboration would be to come up with a surveillance system to detect new or emerging variants.
The Sars-CoV-2 virus evolves in response to the defences put up by the immune system.
"Our immune response may be different from say, a Caucasian response, so over time, we may find that the variants that will emerge in Asia may be very different from the variants in the rest of the world," said Prof Ooi.