SINGAPORE – The Republic’s National Public Health Laboratory (NPHL) is “quite well prepared” for any cases of monkeypox here, its director, Adjunct Professor Raymond Lin, said on Thursday (June 2).
The facility, which is under the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID), has been preparing reagents for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests to screen for the disease, senior medical technologist Nataline Tang said.
Prof Lin noted that NPHL had already proved two years ago – when the first case of monkeypox was detected here – that it has the ability to detect and diagnose the disease.
But he added: “From my point of view, monkeypox isn’t the dangerous thing… We are actually afraid of something like smallpox, which can be very deadly, and when it presents can look like monkeypox. This is one of the things we prepare for, but hope will never happen.”
NPHL has two main roles, the first of which is studying any diseases currently in the community.
This includes respiratory viruses, hand, foot and mouth disease, food-borne illnesses, vector-borne illness, antibiotic-resistant pathogens, tuberculosis and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
“(This is) so we have an early warning if there’s an increase in disease, or a change in strain,” said Prof Lin, adding that this information helps Singapore’s public health system take appropriate measures.
To do this, staff spend about eight hours a day, five days a week, around a whole range of pathogens in NPHL’s laboratories.
But the safety equipment and procedures in place allow staff to go about their work with peace of mind.
“We have equipment here and proper PPE, and we are trained – we have knowledge about what is safe and not safe to do, and all this adds up to how we do our work. All this helps us to feel very safe,” said Ms Tang.
NPHL’s second task is to prepare for pathogens which have not yet reached Singapore.
“We need to think and see what is next. We look around the world and see what the threat is,” said Prof Lin.
This allowed NPHL to have a test ready when Singapore’s first case of monkeypox surfaced in 2019, and also played a key role in the nation’s response to Sars-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19.
Prof Lin explained that, as early as 2019, his team had anticipated that a coronavirus outbreak might be possible here, and so had prepared diagnostic tests which can detect coronaviruses.
NPHL had also improved its ability to sequence and grow viruses by the time Covid-19 hit. All this allowed its team to sequence and grow Sars-CoV-2, which, in turn, provided researchers with samples and information they needed to study the coronavirus and combat it.
NPHL also helped ensure that commercially available test kits and vaccines worked well, and worked on detecting and studying different coronavirus variants.
This meant that during peaks of infection waves, some of NPHL’s staff, such as senior medical technologist Siti Zulaina Mohamed Said, had to work up to 15 hours a day.
She recalled: “I kept telling myself I had to do this for the nation, because, if we didn’t do it, who else would?”