Biopreparedness in Singapore

From: Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

From: Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

The first time I went to Singapore was a little over 10 years ago, for the first ever Asia-Pacific Biosafety Association meeting, and to visit the newly formed and well-financed research center Biopolis. The second time was just last month, for a meeting of the Singapore-US Strategic Dialogue on Biosecurity, organized by UPMC. Ten years is not a significantly long time, but in Singapore, ten years is an eon! There has been such rapid growth for Singapore—everywhere, but particularly in biotechnology. From the time of my first visit there has been a 5-fold growth in biomedical manufacturing, international companies like Novartis and Merck have put significant resources into Singapore, universities like Yale and Duke have opened campuses, and Singapore is continuing to invest-- $13.2B in biotech R&D from 2011-2015. 

The track II dialogue (that is, not an official government meeting) we organized between Singapore and the US was supported by the Project on Advanced Systems and Concepts for Countering WMD (PASCC), and sponsored by the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). The inaugural meeting was held in Washington, DC in June, and the second meeting, the focus of this newly released report, took place at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore on November 12-13, 2014.

Besides being a rising powerhouse in biology, Singapore is a critical security partner to the US in Southeast Asia. The US and Singapore share longstanding military relations, with American forces making use of Singapore’s Naval Base facilities, contributing to peace and stabilizing efforts throughout the region, offering humanitarian assistance, and acting as a deterrent to potential security threats. The importance of Singapore to biosecurity in Southeast Asia continues to grow, due to its rapid biotechnology growth, its leadership in biosafety training within the region, its experience in containing the pandemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), as well as ongoing preparedness efforts related to new, emerging diseases.

Perhaps the biggest thing to remember about biosecurity in Singapore, is that they take it very seriously and dedicate significant resources towards biopreparedness. Much of this is the influence of their experience with natural diseases, including SARS in 2003 and the constant specter of avian influenza. They also have a great deal of travel across their border (over 300,000 people per day), so diseases have lots of opportunities to spread quickly. They are also acutely aware that as a rich country which counts the US as a close ally, and which has documented extremist and militant groups operating in nearby countries, they are at risk of terrorism. 

For our next meeting in Washington, the dialogue will be expanded: in addition to the US and Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia will become a part of it. The topics will change as events change, but we will continue expert discussions on biosecurity, Ebola preparedness and response, biosafety, disease surveillance, and public health response to emerging disease threats. It is guaranteed that both the Singaporean and US experts will learn a great deal and expand their personal networks. Even though email and skype make virtual communication across thousands of miles possible, there is no substitute for face to face meetings—relationships, trust, and shared insights and experiences are difficult to approximate any other way.