Science and tech, global cooperation critical in tackling Covid-19 and future crises: DPM Heng

"The lesson here is that countries must continue to invest in R&D, even during an economic downturn," said Mr Heng Swee Keat.
"The lesson here is that countries must continue to invest in R&D, even during an economic downturn," said Mr Heng Swee Keat.PHOTO: MCI

SINGAPORE - The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the critical role of science and technology as well as the need for global cooperation in combating the crisis, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on Wednesday (Jan 20).

These factors, along with having a strong societal response, will make societies more resilient and better able to take on Disease X - a future, unknown disease that is highly infectious, deadly and mutates easily - as well as other challenges.

"Science and tech will continue to give countries an edge in recovering from this pandemic and tackling the next one. The lesson here is that countries must continue to invest in R&D, even during an economic downturn," said Mr Heng at an event organised by Temasek Foundation.

The Temasek Shophouse Conversations brings leaders from the public, private, and community sector together in a series of panel discussions and events.

Singapore's capabilities in biomedical sciences and infectious diseases have supported its response to the pandemic, and enabled the country to contribute to the global fight against Covid-19, he noted.

For instance, Singapore developed several diagnostic test kits, including the Fortitude polymerase chain reaction test kit by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) and Tan Tock Seng Hospital, which is now used in more than 45 countries.

Mr Heng raised the need for the global community to plan ahead, and cited how artificial intelligence can be harnessed to develop better modelling and early warning systems, as well as identify potential treatments from existing medical databases.

Diagnostic testing can be more quickly developed and scaled, drawing from lessons learnt from the role of asymptomatic transmission in the spread of Covid-19.

"At the same time, it is equally important to sustain basic research and broaden our research foundations, because we can never fully anticipate what Disease X will look like, and the scientific expertise needed to combat it," said Mr Heng, who is also Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies.

Pointing to a World Health Organisation panel's report released earlier this week, which highlighted shortcomings in governments and public health organisations' response to the start of the coronavirus crisis, Mr Heng said it is also a lesson in how the world can react more swiftly and with greater coordination for the next pandemic.

Still, there were bright spots, he said, including the unprecedented level of information sharing and cooperation in science and technology.

For instance, China's scientists shared the first genome sequences of Covid-19 through the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (Gisaid), an international database. The database has since received more than 380,000 genome sequences of the virus from 145 countries, and provided a critical foundation for understanding the virus, and for the development of tests, therapeutics and vaccines.

Another encouraging development is the strengthening of global partnerships, such as the multilateral Covax facility initiative, which is meant to ensure equitable vaccine access worldwide and aims to obtain and fairly distribute two billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines by the end of this year.

"Such global cooperation, comprising multiple stakeholders and at such scale and complexity, is possible when we are united around a common purpose," said Mr Heng, adding that such partnerships have to be encouraged and nurtured.

The pandemic has also tested the solidarity of many societies, and deepened fault lines in some societies, he said.

"I am heartened that our people showed unity and solidarity in the face of adversity," he said, pointing to how citizens and companies stepped forward to help the vulnerable and address their needs.

"We must work on strengthening our unity as one people in good times, so that we can stand strong, and stand together and weather future crises and pandemics when they strike."