It is better to focus on the immediate task at hand of dealing with community infection instead of counting on a vaccine as it may still be some time before one is developed, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong in Parliament on Tuesday (5 May).
He was responding to a question from Workers Party’s (WP) Non-constituency Member of Parliament Leon Perera who asked about the Ministry of Health (MOH)’s current view on a possible vaccine and whether plans are being made to push it out to the population with priority so vulnerably members of the public.
Mr Gan replied, “It’s still very early days. I think there are a lot of news, media report about progress made. In fact, there is progress made. But from here to testing to eventually being approved for use by population, I think that is still some way off.”
The Minister added that Singapore in involved in some of the collaborative research work for a COVID-19 vaccine, saying, “We are tapped into the progress and we hope that the vaccines will come out soon but I think it will still take some time. Better for us to focus on the immediate task that we need to address.”
Targeted testing strategy still most effective, even with increased testing capacity
Mr Perera also asked a question about the ramping up of MOH’s testing which Mr Gan had earlier said was being increased from 8,000 per day to a target of 40,000 per day. As such, the NCMP asked if the MOH will review its current testing which presently only tests some people who present acute respiratory symptoms.
Mr Gan explained that the MOH is hoping to test all prolonged acute respiratory illness (ARI) cases and is looking at whether it can expand texting beyond prolonged ARI cases to increase number of tests done on those showing such symptoms. However, Mr Gan noted that the productiveness and effectiveness of such a strategy has to be assessed, adding that a targeted testing strategy may be more effective for case finding.
“Because the number of cases that will turn positive from the ARIs may be quite low and therefore you may end up testing a lot but not being able to pick up a very meaningful number of cases,” he explained.
Mr Gan went on to say that there is already a surveillance system in place to sample ARI patients and those with flu-like symptoms to get a sense of the prevalence level of the virus in the population and assess if there is widespread community transmission. He assured that this isn’t the case but the MOH is continuing to monitor the situation.
A related question that Mr Perera also brought up was whether the MOH is going to commit to test everyone who has been identified as a close contact of a confirmed COVID-19 case since testing capacity is being increased.
Mr Gan responded that a risk assessment is conducted and close contacts are aggressively tested on that basis, including children who may not be able to explain whether they feel sick.
“And as we have more capacity, we hope to be able to test more of them to minimise the risk of transmission,” added the Minister.
MOH is looking into sewage testing
Finally, Mr Perera asked whether the MOH is looking to test sewage, which is something that is being looked at in Switzerland and Australia, to determine possible clusters of infection in different localities.
In response, the Health Minister stated that trials are already underway to figure out whether fragments of the virus can be picked up from sewage to assess if there is an outbreak in a particular vicinity.
“But there are challenges because sewage, by nature, would have been significantly diluted because it is a collection from quite a large population. So we will need to test the sensitivity and see whether we are able to pick up sufficient fragments to be able to determine whether there is significant infection in a particular target area,” Mr Gan remarked.
“So it’s something that we are continuing to study to see whether we could deploy them in a meaningful way,” he added.