While the COVID-19 pandemic was unfolding here in Australia, many of our international alum were dealing with similar, and in some circumstances, much more challenging times overseas.
Associate Professor David Lye (MBBS 1996) is the Director of Research and Training at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases in Singapore and watched the crisis unfold around him. We spoke to Associate Professor Lye to get his insights on what life in Singapore was like at the height of the pandemic.
WHAT DREW YOU TO INFECTIOUS DISEASE RESEARCH AND WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT IT?
Infectious diseases are intellectually stimulating as there are myriads of microbes, new pathogens emerge such as COVID-19 and old ones evolve such as carnapenemase-producing gram negative bacteria rendering last-line antibiotics (carbapenems) useless.
WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
I still have clinical duties so some days will start with a ward round. There are often many research-related meetings that fill up most parts of my days. These can be internal team meetings or external meetings with partners. I run two afternoon clinics a week seeing HIV and non-HIV patients.
In the times of COVID-19, conference calls make meetings more efficient without need to travel. Unfortunately, such meetings can often start early in the morning or continue late into evenings when they involve international partners from the US and Europe!
WHAT WAS THE FEELING IN SINGAPORE WHEN THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC WAS UNFOLDING?
Singapore was well prepared with a rule book set up since SARS. However, over 90 per cent of current COVID-19 cases in Singapore have occurred in dormitories for foreign workers. This has consumed a lot of the national effort to contain the disease and has led to rethinking of dormitories for foreign workers in the future to mitigate risk of rapid spread of infectious diseases. Fortunately, death from COVID-19 in Singapore remains very low (27 cases out of 56,852 cases as of 2 September 2020). COVID-19 infections outside of the dormitories remain low at 2241 cases.
DID YOU PAY ATTENTION TO HOW IT WAS UNFOLDING IN OTHER PARTS OF THE WORLD? WHAT DID YOU FIND INTERESTING ABOUT THE COMPARISONS?
Every country has had important lessons on COVID-19. China has given all countries an important lead time to prepare but many countries have not taken heed.
Compare Europe and the United States versus Vietnam which locked down early. The Daegu outbreak in Korea and the surge in cases in Tokyo overwhelmed local health systems. Every country has its Achilles’ heels: foreign worker dormitories in Singapore; nursing homes in Europe, the UK and USA; and the underprivileged in the USA and Brazil. COVID-19 world is an amazingly smart virus that demands hypervigilant pandemic response. The interconnected world has not seen such a microbe in modern history. The post-COVID-19 world will be radically different for us to survive.
HOW IS SINGAPORE FARING NOW AND WHAT IS THE FEELING FROM THE WIDER COMMUNITY?
Singapore has started easing lockdown. New dormitories are being built. Capacity of testing has been enhanced. Local cases remain low in numbers. Schools are slowly reopening. We are still learning how to live in the post-COVID-19 era, developing solutions about new ways to work, socialise and hopefully to travel in the medium term.
HOW HAS YOUR ROLE CHANGED SINCE COVID-19?
Since COVID-19, all research activities have been stopped and re-directed to support COVID-19 research. My pre-pandemic research focuses on dengue, antibiotic resistance and clinical trials. As director of research at NCID, I have also taken on the role of national coordinator of COVID-19 research under a national COVID-19 research workgroup with clinicians from all public hospitals in Singapore as well as scientists from universities and research institutes.
HOW DO YOU THINK COVID-19 WILL CHANGE THE WAY YOU WORK IN THE FUTURE?
The National Centre of Infectious Diseases is established primarily to deal with a pandemic outbreak such as COVID-19. We were not sure when it would occur. So we are now doing what we were established to do. The collaborative framework governing COVID-19 research sets us in good stead to develop a national infectious disease research collaboration.
WHAT KEEPS YOU AWAKE AT NIGHT?
What if there is no effective vaccine and immunity from COVID-19 is not long-lasting?
WHAT GIVES YOU HOPE?
The speed at which medical research has responded to address treatment of COVID-19.