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SPEECH BY DR JANIL PUTHUCHEARY, SENIOR MINISTER OF STATE, MINISTRY OF HEALTH, AT THE LAUNCH OF GOING VIRAL EXHIBITION, 22 AUGUST 2023, AT SCIENCE CENTRE SINGAPORE

Chairman, Science Centre Board, Ms Tan Yen Yen

CE, Science Centre Singapore, A/Prof Lim Tit Meng

Distinguished Guests

Ladies and gentlemen

         Good morning. I am happy to join you for the launch of the Going Viral Exhibition at the Science Centre today.

Evolution of Science and Technology

2.      About a hundred years ago, the 1918 flu pandemic, also widely known as the “Spanish Flu”, took the lives of about 50 million people. At that time, nobody knew why the flu virus was so deadly and where it had originated.

3. The advancements in science and technology over the last half a century have enabled the scientific community to discover, sequence and reconstruct the genetic sequence of the 1918 flu virus. This led to a better understanding of the 1918 flu pandemic, which has helped the global public health community prepare for modern day pandemics, such as the 2009 H1N1.

4. Our scientific knowledge about emerging infectious diseases and research capabilities were put to the test when we were hit with the COVID-19 pandemic. The global scientific community raced against time to analyse the genome of this new strain of coronaviruses that was spreading rapidly around the world.

5. COVID-19 prompted collaborative efforts amongst the global scientific community to develop novel diagnostic kits, treatments and vaccines to fight the virus. The availability of effective vaccines was a major turning point for us as vaccination was the most effective tool to protect ourselves against COVID-19.

6. By leveraging messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccine technology that was being explored for a wide range of diseases including cancer and infectious diseases, and using the genomic sequence of the COVID-19 virus shared by infectious diseases experts, scientists in pharmaceutical companies such as Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech were able to develop effective and safe COVID-19 vaccines rapidly. This was a major scientific breakthrough.

Importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields

7. Following the SARS outbreak in 2003, Singapore invested in infectious diseases, diagnostics and therapeutics research, and built up our local base of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) talents and capabilities, through various research grants and talent development schemes.

8. Our strong base of STEM talents and capabilities enabled Singapore to participate in global COVID-19 clinical trials and understand the different virus strains in relation to transmission and vaccine efficacy.

9. For example, a local research team found that the Omicron variant is better at escaping the immune response. However, it also resulted in more vaccinated people
acquiring hybrid immunity, which better protects against reinfection. This finding is important as it can help guide us better in our response against future pandemics, including the development of better and more broadly protective vaccines.

10. Also, collaborations among multi-disciplinary experts, ranging from basic and applied scientists, engineers, mathematicians to public health practitioners, have enabled Singapore to be amongst the first in the world to produce and deploy an approved COVID-19 diagnostic test. We also produced a “first-in-the-world” SARS-CoV-2 serology test called cPass which can be used to determine the efficacy of potential vaccines, to assess the level of herd immunity and for contact tracing, without the need of a high biosafety containment facility.

Translation of evidence-based scientific knowledge into policies

11. Our investment in digital capabilities also enabled us to put in place our case reporting and tracking databases, which facilitated the prompt transmission of COVID-19 test results from the laboratory to the contact tracing and conveyance systems downstream, so that public health actions could be initiated rapidly. Without our in-house digital capabilities within the government, we would not have been able to implement the technologies needed for contact tracing and the implementation of vaccination-differentiated Safe Management Measures during COVID-19.

12. Having a strong base of STEM capabilities has also enabled us to harness science and research to support our public health responses. Our research findings provide the basis for our policymakers to make informed decisions throughout the pandemic, which allowed Singapore to respond more quickly to changes in the pandemic situation.

13. The implementation of evidence-based policies grounded on sound scientific evidence ensures the protection and well-being of our communities. For example, evidence from local studies showed that the viral load for Omicron infections is lower
than that of Delta infections during the entire infection period. This knowledge was applied in the adjustment of the maximum isolation period for fully vaccinated individuals from 10 days to 7 days.

Infodemic in the pandemic

14. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the public was also flooded with information on the virus on social media – an “infodemic” – a term coined by the WHO. Misinformation could erode public trust in evidence-based health policies and deter public from adopting good practices to combat the pandemic.

15. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of communicating accurate scientific knowledge to the public, in order to assuage the fear and anxiety during times of crises and uncertainties.

16. Singapore also recognises the importance of distilling key information from lessons that we have learnt during the COVID-19 pandemic. The government released a White Paper on Singapore’s Response to COVID-19 in March this year, which provided a review of our whole-of-nation response to the COVID-19 pandemic and crystallised key lessons so that we can be better prepared for the next pandemic.

Moving Forward, Our Future

17. To enhance our preparedness against future infectious disease outbreaks, MOH has established the Programme for Research in Epidemic Preparedness and Responses, or PREPARE for short, to provide dedicated research funding to support the Research & Development (R&D) activities for pandemic-related research. From our COVID-19 experience, we learned that combating a pandemic requires close collaboration among experts from the various STEM fields, to enhance Singapore’s R&D capabilities in pandemic research.

18. PREPARE thus draws on a multidisciplinary team to focus on: 1) Analytics, disease and behaviour modelling, 2) Environmental transmission and mitigation, 3) Diagnostics, 4) Vaccines and therapeutics as well as 5) Regional networks and partnerships.

Closing

19. Our years of investment in science and technology have enabled us to respond to the pandemic as effectively as we did. Therefore, it is crucial that we continue to support and invest in STEM fields. In doing so, we can continue to strengthen our preparedness for future pandemics, enhance our healthcare systems, and build a more resilient Singapore.

20. The Going Viral exhibition is timely as it presents the multifaceted challenges faced in managing the pandemic. It highlights the importance of STEM and traces the journey of science which has evolved over time.

21. I hope the students, who will be exploring the exhibition later, will be inspired to take on careers in the STEM fields and explore the possibilities of contributing, in your own way, to Singapore’s science and technology landscape.

22. Thank you and enjoy the exhibition.

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