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From Robot Swabbers To Vaccines: A Look At Where S’pore Stands In The Race Against COVID-19

The Covid-19 pandemic has ravaged the world for almost the whole of 2020.

Even though it has only been about eight months since the outbreak began, data from the World Health Organisation shows that over 169 vaccines are under development, with 26 of these in the human trial phase.

Where then, does Singapore stand in its progress of developing these tools to combat the pandemic?

The Made-In-Singapore Robot Swabber

swabbot singapore robot swabber
Image Credit: Malay Mail

The SwabBot is a robot that carries out nasal swabbing to diagnose Covid-19.

SwabBot was developed by clinicians from the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS), Singapore General Hospital (SGH) and Duke-NUS Medical School, in collaboration with medical robotics company Biobot Surgical.

It is the first in the world that allows patients to fully control the swab process to ensure higher levels of comfort, and the patient can activate or terminate the process at will.

The swabbing process will only happen after the patient activates it when he or she is fully ready.

“When patients are empowered and fully in control of the swabbing process, they are mentally prepared and experience subjectively less pain,” said principal investigator Rena Dharmawan, associate consultant, head and neck surgery, at NCCS and SGH’s Division of Surgery and Surgical Oncology.

The whole process takes about 20 seconds, half the time of a manual swab test.

In a typical swab test, a nasal swab is taken from a patient by a medical worker, who will stick a swab the patient’s nose.

According to the team behind the robot, the SwabBot reduces the exposure of medical staff to Covid-19, standardises the consistency of the swabs taken, and increases the efficiency.

Widespread Saliva Testing For Covid-19

saliva test kit singapore
Image Credit: Live Science

In June, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said that it was studying the feasibility of incorporating saliva-based tests into its testing regime.

The use of widespread saliva testing is currently undergoing field tests in Singapore, as the health authorities assess if it can be scaled for widespread use.

Recently, Singapore-based medical company Veredus Laboratories launched a saliva test kit, which is still pending approval from the Health Sciences Authority (HSA).

Known as the ZeroPrep Saliva Collection Kit, it can reduce the time taken to determine if a person has Covid-19 by up to 40 minutes.

If approved, it will be the first saliva-based test kit in Singapore that eliminates an “extraction process”, which allows the virus to be detected in about an hour.

In a typical swab test, ribonucleic acid (RNA), which stores the genetic information of the virus, has to be extracted and put through another test known as the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.

The ZeroPrep Saliva Collection Kit is also one of the few in the world that eliminates the extraction process.

The Search For A Vaccine

covid 19 vaccine singapore
Image Credit: CNBC TV

Everyone is eagerly awaiting the vaccine for the dreaded coronavirus.

A vaccine helps one’s immune system learn to recognise a specific virus, like the one that causes Covid-19. The body then produce antibodies without having to suffer a real infection.

However, Professor Ooi Eng Eong, deputy director of the Duke-NUS Medical School’s emerging infectious diseases programme, said that the soonest the vaccine can be available is around June next year.

Nevertheless, it seems that Singapore is making good progress in its quest for a vaccine. The nation is currently involved in developing a few vaccines.

Last month, human clinical trials began as volunteers got dosed with a vaccine called Lunar-Cov19. It is jointly developed by Duke-NUS Medical School and United States pharmaceutical company Arcturus Therapeutics.

Should the vaccine be successful, the Singapore government will own the rights to the vaccine within the country, with Arcturus free to market it abroad.

Researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Monash University in Australia are also in the midst of developing a Covid-19 vaccine.

The vaccine is modified from a cancer drug and is known as Clec9A-RBD. It could be ready for clinical trials by the end of this year.

Despite the extremely rapid pace at which Covid-19 vaccines are being developed, more time is needed to identify the most promising candidates.

Many experts predict that it will only be in mid-2021 before a vaccine is available. Furthermore, problems such as large-scale production and dissemination might occur.

Though the search for a vaccine looks promising, we might have to contend with tools that will facilitate the Covid-19 process from diagnosis to recovery in the meantime.

Featured Image Credit: NST

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