National Centre for Infectious Diseases executive director Leo Yee Sin says the centre is boosting its clinical, public health and research arms to deal with the next disease to hit Singapore. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
The nation’s key pandemic-fighting powerhouse is being strengthened to help Singapore cope with the next disease to hit the country, even as it continues to battle current outbreaks.
After a baptism of fire with COVID-19, the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID), which turns three this month, is boosting its clinical, public health and research arms to deal with Disease X, said its executive director Leo Yee Sin.
It is what it calls anticipatory preparedness.
“It’s just remarkable that within… a very short three to four years, we have experienced multiple outbreaks,” Professor Leo said, in an exclusive interview with The Straits Times recently.
“Singapore is so connected that when anything happens in other parts of the world, we will be affected.”
NCID, which has a staff strength of 800, is progressively growing the team and looking for more nurses and doctors.
The centre, alongside the national Programme for Research in Epidemic Preparedness and Response, or Prepare, is also working on strengthening infectious disease collaboration networks locally and regionally.
It is ramping up diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccine capabilities, strengthening national infectious disease repository and exploring database for research and data analysis.
“NCID’s role is to be able to function adequately as a first responder, to be able to work closely with the Government... to strengthen the system, the surveillance,” said Prof Leo.
This means that all new cases of infectious diseases will first go to the centre, which allows the team there to study and understand the intruder quickly. “Then we can share all this information that influences policy decision-making,” she added.
In the early days of the pandemic, all the cases were sent to NCID, which could then monitor patients and study the disease.
“We found it very useful that within one to two weeks of managing the cases, we were able to understand the condition so much more,” Prof Leo said. “So I think that kind of advantage that we have built up in NCID needs to be further strengthened.”
Discussions about how to strengthen the public health component are also going on.
Although the coronavirus is less of a threat now, it is still changing, Prof Leo noted.
“COVID-19 is so complex that what’s happening in the United States may not happen here. It means that whatever the US is doing, we cannot follow wholesale...
“We have to find our own way to understand how COVID-19 will impact us and then find the best strategies.”
Singapore has relaxed most restrictions as the situation stabilises amid high vaccination rates. But whether the Omicron sub-variants that have emerged in other parts of the world will show up here and behave in the same way is unclear.
The authorities have said the Republic needs to be prepared for a year-end wave that may be caused by a variant that dodges immunity from past infection.
“We cannot, at this point in time, think that the world has overcome COVID-19,” she said. “We need to stay connected regionally and internationally, understand what’s going on, and then elevate our ability in terms of our capability of detecting any new things coming into Singapore.”
This is why NCID maintains very good international connections so that it can get first-hand information of any new diseases.
When monkeypox became a problem in Europe in May, for instance, the centre linked up with clinicians and researchers in Britain and France to understand the situation, even before the first case showed up in Singapore on June 20. The Republic now has 16 cases, while the World Health Organisation has recorded more than 50,000 cases in the current global outbreak.
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