By Sarah Zulkifli, Manager, Science Writer, Communications & Outreach
As the highly transmissible Omicron variant continues its spread around the world, Singapore too is facing a surge in COVID-19 Omicron cases.
To gain insights into the fight against the pandemic, The LKCMedicine speaks with Associate Professor David Lye from the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) who is deputy chairman of the COVID-19 Research Workgroup (RWG) aimed at conducting studies to better understand COVID-19 and its transmission in Singapore. For their instrumental contributions and significant achievements in COVID-19 research, and management of the pandemic response in Singapore and globally, the COVID-19 RWG was awarded the National Clinical Excellence Team Award 2021.
A/Prof Lye is also Co-director of LKCMedicine’s Respiratory and Infectious Diseases Programme and recently won the Dean’s Awards for Research.
Q: Congratulations on winning the National Clinical Excellence Team Award at the National Medical Excellence Awards (NMEA) 2021! What does this award mean to you?
The NMEA award is for our work in national COVID-19 research workgroup, which comprises collaborators from all public hospitals, the three medical schools, Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, Agency for Science, Technology and Research, Defence Science Organisation, Ministry of Health, National Medical Research Council and Singapore Clinical Research Institute.
For Singapore to make a significant impact on pandemic research, it really took collective efforts of the best of Singapore’s infectious diseases (ID) research community, and of course our patients.
I am honoured by the award and humbled by the contribution by all our collaborators that made it possible.
Q: How did you begin planning the COVID-19 RWG and what was your role?
Since we heard about the cluster of pneumonia in Wuhan late December 2019, we were preparing for an outbreak. Professor Leo Yee Sin and I discussed how to get together a group of ID researchers from across Singapore to work together. We decided to ask for nomination from each institution instead of just our own collaborators. We met on 22 January 2020 and discussed areas of interest. On 23 January 2020, the first COVID-19 patient was confirmed in Singapore. We recruited our first COVID-19 patient on 24 January 2020. Professor Leo is the chair and I am the deputy chair.
As director of Infectious Disease Research and Training Office, NCID, one of my missions is to coordinate timely and effective outbreak research nationally. Within the many areas of interest, I led clinical trials of treatment of COVID-19 as I was head of Singapore Infectious Disease Clinical Research Network and a main focus of my own research has been on randomised controlled trials of treatment for infectious diseases.
Q: What preparations were made to enable Singapore to move towards the endemic phase?
We are still in a pandemic. From 2020 we know face mask and safe distancing are highly effective in preventing COVID-19. Since middle of 2020, I have been part of national COVID-19 therapeutics and vaccines workgroup that evaluated and recommended COVID-19 vaccines for Singapore.
As we embarked on national COVID-19 vaccination, I have been appointed to be part of the Expert Committee on COVID-19 Vaccination. Ensuring full vaccination of all eligible persons and boosters of vulnerable persons are key to Singapore moving towards the COVID-19 resilient phase. Through clinical trials and early procurement, we also ensure Singapore has sufficient effective treatment for COVID-19.
Q: What are the RWG’s future research plans towards a COVID-19 resilient country?
This is best exemplified by our national COVID-19 research response to Delta variant. The national COVID-19 research workgroup quickly conducted studies on the clinical impact of Delta variant and vaccine breakthrough infections, whether recovered COVID-19 patients and vaccinated persons have effective antibodies to protect against Delta variant, and ongoing assessment of vaccine efficacy against infection and severe disease. We also continue to conduct clinical trials to study better treatment of COVID-19 via US NIH ACTIV-3 platform trial.
Q: What will the future look like and what can we expect in a post-pandemic world? What milestones or steps do we need to take before we witness a mask-free lifestyle again?
I foresee that if we are able to get as many people vaccinated against COVID-19 and eligible persons to get booster vaccines, we will have a few more waves of COVID-19 that get smaller over time. Until then face mask is the cheapest and most effective protection that allows us to eat out, work, socialise and travel. When we are certain the healthcare systems will not be stressed by many unvaccinated and a few vulnerable vaccinated patients with severe COVID-19, and majority of vaccinated people who get COVID-19 either have no symptoms or very mild symptoms, then our government can decide if we can stop wearing face mask.
The resurgent COVID-19 in Europe shows the importance of maintaining some protection with face mask in addition to immunity from vaccination and natural infection to contain the scale of COVID-19 outbreaks.
Q: The new variant, Omicron, is spreading far and wide. As far as healthcare goes, do you think Singapore has made preparations for new variants? What typically goes on in NCID when new variants are announced?
Singapore is well prepared for a new variant. Scientists worldwide including in Singapore have been assessing if the mutations found in Omicron variant will affect our diagnostic tests such as PCR and antigen tests, as well as the effectiveness of vaccination and monoclonal antibodies.
Latest studies show that the impact of Omicron seems greatest on the unvaccinated and partially vaccinated, so getting the remaining unvaccinated persons to get vaccinated and as many vulnerable persons such as elderly, patients with cancer, transplantation, on medications suppressing their immune system, and on dialysis, to get boosted is critical.
Q: How do you manage to strike a balance between your personal life and work? What do you do for better mental health?
I rest whenever I can. I also keep in close contact with family and close friends, the idea of a social bubble I proposed in May 2021. I also exercise regularly so that I can enjoy good food which is so important to nourish our soul during the pandemic.