ScienceTalk: Covid-19 and the coming of age of Singapore science

Local biotech firm MiRXES came up with its Fortitude Covid-19 test kits within three weeks. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

SINGAPORE - The worst of times has brought out the best in people.

Particularly so, on the research front, where local scientists have made their mark on the world stage.

Biotech firm MiRXES, for one, switched gears as early as January, working with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) and Tan Tock Seng Hospital to shift its expertise in cancer detection in another direction - to create kits that could sniff out the virus instead.

With six years under its belt producing PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests, it was able to come up with its Fortitude Covid-19 test kits within three weeks.

Fast and highly accurate, the tests are considered top of the line. With the support of Enterprise Singapore's Enterprise Development Grant, the company was able to quickly scale up production of kits to one million per week through automation, and they have been deployed in 45 countries.

Likewise, hundreds of doctors, scientists and researchers from all fields have thrown their weight behind the battle against the virus, with efforts ranging from 3-D printing of test swabs to creating the award-winning contact tracing programme TraceTogether, to coming up with treatments and a possible vaccine.

Indeed, Singapore was only the third country outside of China to successfully culture the virus, and local researchers have contributed more than 1,100 publications on Covid-19 and Sars-CoV-2, which causes the illness.

When it comes to Covid-19 research, Singapore is punching above its weight, and others are taking notice.

All this is a far cry from even a decade ago, when researchers here lamented that the pressure to deliver economic returns took precedence over more intangible long term gains in say, healthcare or education.

There was also a widespread belief, even from within, that local science was not up to scratch, and criticism that groups worked in silos with little collaboration among teams and disciplines.

Efforts throughout the pandemic have put many of these worries to rest, underscoring the impact of local research, and the crucial ability to work together and change tack during an emergency, something possible only because of many prior years of research and experience.

People have also been able to see, first-hand, the value of science in saving lives and livelihoods.

The billions of dollars pumped into research and innovation have been a worthwhile long-term investment.

On Friday (Dec 11), the Government endorsed the efforts of researchers at the forefront of the pandemic fight, and again pledged its support for research and innovation.

It announced a $25 billion plan to chart Singapore's research landscape over the next five years, including a critical investment to shore up its defences against future infectious disease threats.

In many ways, 2020 has marked the coming of age for Singapore science, a milestone over two decades in the making.

It is science which will help the Republic emerge from the grip of the virus, and to survive and even thrive, in an increasingly uncertain world.

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