SINGAPORE: Science and technology have played a critical role in combatting COVID-19 and will give countries an edge in tackling the next pandemic, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on Wednesday (Jan 20).
Mr Heng said that this was one of three fundamentals that will strengthen the world's ability to take on "Disease X", a yet unknown disease which could cause a future global pandemic.
He was speaking at the inaugural Temasek Shophouse Conversations event, themed COVID-19 Lessons for Disease X, which marks about a year since the COVID-19 outbreak began in Singapore.
There has since been rapid development of COVID-19 test kits and therapeutics; new digital solutions that have aided contact tracing efforts; and several vaccines authorised for use "in record time", said Mr Heng, who is also the Finance Minister.
"In Singapore, our capabilities in biomedical sciences and infectious diseases supported our pandemic response, and also enabled us to contribute to this global effort," he said.
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Science and tech will continue to give countries an edge in recovering from this pandemic and tackling the next one, he noted. "The lesson here is that countries must continue to invest in R&D, even during an economic downturn."
For instance, he said, by learning from the role of asymptomatic transmission in the spread of COVID-19, countries can develop and scale diagnostic testing more quickly. He also cited how artificial intelligence can lead to better modelling and early warning systems, and also identify potential treatments from existing medical databases.
Mr Heng also urged governments and public health organisations to heed the advice of a World Health Organization's independent review panel on how to better tackle the next such crisis. Earlier this week, the panel had highlighted how countries and WHO could have moved faster to contain the pandemic.
"There are important lessons that we should learn from, so that we can react more swiftly and with greater coordination for the next pandemic," said Mr Heng.
Even so, there were still bright spots, he said. For example, there was an "unprecedented level" of information sharing and cooperation in science and technology.
The first genome sequences of COVID-19 were shared by China’s scientists through the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID). Since then GISAID has received more than 380,000 genome sequence of the virus from 145 countries.
Singapore played a useful role in setting up and maintaining the genomic database for COVID-19, together with others around the globe, said Mr Heng.
"As the volume of submissions increased, our team developed new algorithms and computational tools to facilitate curation," he said.
GISAID provided a critical foundation for understanding the virus, and the development of tests, therapeutics and vaccines, he added. Scientists can thus study virus mutations, the implications of epidemic spread and assess whether COVID-19 tests and vaccines remain effective.
He also highlighted the COVAX facility, a global collaboration to distribute vaccines fairly as an "encouraging development" in the strengthening of multi-stakeholder partnerships worldwide.
"The lesson here is that 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.
"STRENGTHEN SOCIETY'S RESPONSE"
Mr Heng said that society's response to the pandemic also needs to be strengthened.
The crisis has deepened fault lines in some societies, while galvanising the community in others, he said.
"We must remain vigilant and continue to adapt, and expect the unexpected. There will be many more lessons to be learnt before the pandemic ends," Mr Heng warned.
"COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic. As we mark the first anniversary of COVID-19 in Singapore, it is useful to reflect on what the pandemic has taught us so far, and the fundamentals that we will need to strengthen."
Singapore reported its first case of COVID-19 on Jan 23 last year. As of Tuesday, it has detected a total of 59,157 COVID-19 infections, of which 58,894 have recovered.
There are 45 cases still in hospital. Most of them are stable or improving, and none is in the intensive care unit. Another 189 are being isolated and cared for at community facilities.