Pandemic preparedness is like coaching athletes to achieve a podium finish at a championship with no set date in no pre-assigned discipline, concluded a panel of experts moderated by The Straits Times
Senior Health Correspondent Ms Salma Khalik. The panel discussion followed the launch on 10 July
of Duke-NUS’ Centre for Outbreak Preparedness
or COP, which will further strengthen regional research capacity, cooperation and preparedness against future pandemics and public health threats.
“[A]s we are emerging from the pandemic, it is important that we remember the lessons we learnt over the past two plus years and use these to prepare for the next one. It is in this spirit that we conceptualised the Centre for Outbreak Preparedness.”
In the audience were Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Mr Heng Swee Keat, Duke-NUS Governing Board Chairman Mr Goh Yew Lin as well as members of the board, benefactors, partners and leaders from across the biomedical, healthcare and other sectors.
Addressing the audience, Duke-NUS Dean Professor Thomas Coffman
talked about the genesis of COP.
“Duke-NUS is proud to contribute to Singapore’s decisive and effective actions to fight COVID-19. And now, as we are emerging from the pandemic, it is important that we remember the lessons we learnt over the past two plus years and use these to prepare for the next one,” he said. “It is in this spirit that we conceptualised the Centre for Outbreak Preparedness.”
The Centre will leverage Duke-NUS’ close ties with its parent universities—Duke University and the National University of Singapore—as well as Singapore government agencies and key local partners such as Singapore’s National Programme for Research in Epidemic Preparedness and Response or PREPARE, A*STAR’s Bioinformatics Institute, the National Centre for Infectious Diseases and international bodies such as the World Health Organisation.
“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we are interdependent and that we are strongest when we are working together. Partnerships between institutions, between countries, between continents are the crux and core mission of COP,” said Professor Paul Pronyk
, Director of the new centre.
Capitalising on its strategic location in Southeast Asia, the Centre will help address gaps in pandemic preparedness in a region known as a hotspot for zoonoses. One of the key gaps it hopes to bridge is timely access to the genetic data of pathogens that pose disease threats.
And one of the first initiatives COP will support is the Asia Pathogen Genomics Initiative (APGI), a joint effort between Duke-NUS and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which aims to expand genomic sequencing capacity across 11 countries in South and Southeast Asia.
“Innovations in early detection can make an enormous difference in saving lives, particularly in countries at high risk of outbreaks and where healthcare systems are strained. That means it is vital for lower- and middle-income countries to have a robust capacity for genomic surveillance and epidemiology,” said Dr Mark Suzman, CEO of the Foundation during the COP launch event.
“Here in Asia, many countries already have amazing tools in place for such work,” he added. “However, we recognise that a great deal of work still needs to be done to track pathogen genomics and inform the development and use of therapeutics and vaccines in many parts of South and Southeast Asia.”
Summing up the need for a centre like COP, Dean of NUS’ Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health Professor Teo Yik Ying zeroed in on three reasons: the hotspot-nature of South and Southeast Asia for new emerging infectious diseases and the re-emergence of old threats, the continent’s susceptibility to global megatrends such as rapid urbanisation as well as the lack of a trusted global agency in this part of the world that can provide the necessary oversight.
“These three reasons mean that there is potentially a perfect storm waiting to happen in Asia, in the form of the rise of a highly pathogenic virus or bacteria that is either completely novel, or completely resistant to existing medicines and technologies,” he said, adding that he is excited to see COP “establish itself as a regional centre for excellence, as an important step where Singapore is able to contribute to the surveillance of pathogenic threats in the world.”