Under Singapore’s chairmanship of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Science, Technology and Innovation, and the ASEAN Committee on Science, Technology and Innovation, ASEAN had seen stronger Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) collaboration, notably in intra-ASEAN capabilities to combat COVID-19 and future pandemics.
Zoom snapshot of the 11th Informal ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Science, Technology and Innovation (IAMMSTI-11). Highlighted in yellow is Thailand’s Minister of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation, Prof. Dr. Anek Laothamatas, who chaired the IAMMSTI-11 meeting. Pictured above Prof. Dr. Anek Laothamatas is Mr Alvin Tan, Minister of State, Ministry of Trade and Industry, Singapore.
17 June 2021, SINGAPORE – Minister of State, Ministry of Trade and Industry Mr Alvin Tan and Deputy Chief Executive (Research) of A*STAR Prof Andy Hor led the Singapore delegation at the 11th Informal ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Science, Technology and Innovation (IAMMSTI-11), and the 79th ASEAN Committee on Science, Technology and Innovation (COSTI-79) and related meetings respectively. Hosted by Thailand, both meetings took place from 15 to 17 June 2021. At these meetings, Singapore officially handed over the chairmanship of AMMSTI and COSTI to Thailand, with the former chaired by Thailand’s Minister of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation, Prof. Dr. Anek Laothamatas.
ASEAN Member States reaffirmed their commitment to regional cooperation on science and technology and discussed proposals for research collaboration to boost ASEAN’s capabilities in combating COVID-19 and future pandemics.
The COSTI-79 and IAMMSTI-11 meetings were conducted in a hybrid format, onsite in Bangkok and attended virtually by ASEAN member states.
Two COVID-19 research collaboration proposals, initiated by Singapore in 2020, during its chairmanship of COSTI, were officially endorsed at the COSTI-79 and IAMMSTI-11.
Both proposals arose from the outcomes of the ASEAN COSTI Forum on COVID-19, initiated and organised by Singapore in October 2020. With the Forum’s broad themes of Prevention, Detection, and Therapeutics, member states shared their collective national experience in dealing with the pandemic and brainstormed ideas for regional cooperation in science and technology which could strengthen ASEAN’s technological capabilities and contribute to the global battle against COVID-19.
IAMMSTI-11 and COSTI-79 endorsed a proposal on adding analysis value to genomic surveillance, co-led by Singapore and Malaysia through Singapore’s Bioinformatics Institute1 (BII) and A*STAR Infectious Disease Labs (ID Labs), research institutes under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), and Malaysia’s Institute for Biotechnology2 (NIBM). The research and development (R&D) partnership aims to provide accurate and up-to-date genomic information on virus strains detected in the region, leveraging the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID3) platform – an international data initiative for sharing of virus genomes, including the coronavirus causing COVID-19, to enable rapid and open access to virus information.
The emergence of COVID-19 variants has added another layer of complexity for public health officials. To better understand the impact of these variants, such as its transmissibility and clinical severity, it is critical to identify and differentiate the strains.
Genomic sequencing can aid in distinguishing the variants by “reading” the genetic sequences of virus strains. This technique can reveal the slightest difference in genetic code and allow researchers to tell them apart.
This proposed partnership between Singapore’s BII and A*STAR ID Labs with Malaysia’s NIBM leverages existing biotechnology and bioinformatics capabilities in ASEAN and builds on top of existing national genome sequencing efforts. By contributing real-time COVID-19 analysis, the partnership will work towards revealing genomic relationships between COVID-19 virus sequences collected from the region. This will be expressed in the form of an interactive ASEAN-centric phylogenetic tree as well as timely update reports on the occurrence of variants of concern, for use by researchers and health officials to understand the evolution and spread of viruses during this pandemic. To enable all ASEAN members to leverage the joint effort, the partnership will also look into organising workshops to share expertise on analysis methods and the use of the GISAID platform.
Sharing of real-time genomic information on COVID-19 strains in ASEAN will contribute valuable insights for public health authorities. By providing a broad and updated picture of virus strains detected both nationally and regionally, the increased understanding can offer guidance to national healthcare measures.
This systematic biosurveillance of viral genomes detected in ASEAN can assist in detecting potential transmission between countries as well as discovering new strains with mutations that could affect diagnostics or vaccination. This information serves to inform national contact tracing processes as well as evaluate the effectiveness of mitigation measures.
With a view beyond the current pandemic, the R&D cooperation will advance the region’s preparedness for future outbreaks by strengthening linkages and cultivating new networks between ASEAN member states for the sharing of information on viruses.
The rapid development of vaccines marked one of the key turning points of the pandemic. Vaccination programmes have worked in tandem with health and safety measures to slow the global pace of viral transmission.
The Philippines and Singapore are co-leading a regional study to assess the levels of immunity within ASEAN communities at different stages, including before vaccination and the longevity of immunity conferred through vaccination. The study will look into the effectiveness of seroconversion of vaccines, which refers to the development of specific antibodies in the blood serum as a result of a COVID-19 infection or vaccination.
This study will be jointly led by the Research Institute of Tropical Medicine & Council of Health Research and Development of the Philippines4 (RITM), Singapore’s Duke-NUS Medical School, and the Diagnostics Development (DxD) Hub5 . This research partnership also taps on the networks fostered through the ASEAN Diagnostics (Dx) Initiative6 , expanding on the list of priority diseases and pivoting to help meet the challenges of the current pandemic. ASEAN members states that have confirmed participation in the proposal are Indonesia’s Eijkman Institute of Molecular Biology, Malaysia’s University of Malaya, Faculty of Medicine, Thailand’s King Chulalongkorn Memorial Hospital Bangkok and Vietnam’s Oxford University Clinical Research Unit.
This is the first multi-country regional study on the serology response to vaccination. With multiple vaccines being deployed, coupled with the evolving variants of concern (VOCs), this study will potentially offer impactful insights for the scientific community, public health practitioners, government policymakers and industry involved in COVID-19.
Prof Andy Hor, Singapore COSTI Chairman and Deputy Chief Executive (Research) of A*STAR, said, “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that regional and global cooperation is required to deal with it effectively. Infectious diseases do not recognise borders and as the saying goes, ‘no-one is safe until everyone is safe.’ It has also demonstrated ASEAN’s resolve to intensify regional cooperation and collaboration, leveraging science, technology and innovation to help boost the region’s response to COVID-19. I am pleased that COSTI and IAMMSTI have endorsed the genomics and serosurveillance projects, which will not only help ASEAN to deal with COVID-19 more effectively, but also enhance ASEAN’s preparedness for future pandemics. Singapore will continue to play an active role in working with ASEAN to strengthen science and technology cooperation, to improve the lives and livelihoods of ASEAN citizens.”
1 The Bioinformatics Institute (BII) is one of Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR)’s research entities, and dedicated to primarily computational biology/bioinformatics driven life science research aimed at the discovery of biomolecular mechanisms guiding biological phenomena.
2 Established in 2012, NIBM is a consortium of three national biotechnology institutes – Malaysian Institute of Pharmaceuticals & Nutraceuticals (IPHARM), Agro-Biotechnology Institute Malaysia (ABI), and Malaysia Genome Institute (MGI).
3 GISAID currently has more than 2 million annotated sequences submitted since January 2020. It has a fair-use policy that allows data access without infringing on the submitters’ rights.
4 The RITM based in the Philippines was established 30 years ago, with a vision to be a locally and internationally recognized leading institution for research, training, clinical and diagnostic services, and biologicals production in infectious disease.
5 DxD Hub is a national platform hosted by Singapore’s A*STAR. DxD Hub’s mission is to fast-track the transformation of IPs into clinically validated diagnostic devices that are ready for market adoption.
6 Spearheaded by A*STAR’s DxD Hub from Singapore and the ASEAN Network for Drugs, Diagnostics, Vaccines and Traditional Medicines Innovation’s (ASEAN NDI) from the Philippines, the ASEAN Dx Initiative was endorsed by COSTI in 2018 and aims to promote cross-border public and private partnerships within Southeast Asia to commercialise diagnostics technologies and products. The priority topics identified by the Initiative includes diseases prevalent in ASEAN such as Dengue, Tuberculosis, Hepatitis B, and Malaria.