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HTX-Factor: Applying S&T to Battle COVID-19
Having strengthened its CBRNE capabilities over the past decade, the Home Team is applying leading-edge S&T in the fight against COVID-19.

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PHOTOS: Natasha Razak, Tiffany Tan

In the midst of the uncertainties brought about by the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), cool heads and leading-edge S&T from the Home Team Science & Technology Agency (HTX) are making a real difference to safeguarding our borders from the virus. 

Working closely with Home Team Departments such as the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA) and the Singapore Police Force, HTX plays a vital role in safeguarding Singapore from bio-threats and assisting in investigations related to the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives (CBRNE) domain.

Shaping Singapore's CBRNE Capabilities/Protection
Leading HTX’s CBRNE Centre of Expertise is Director May Ong. Since joining the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2008, May played an integral role in establishing the Tuas Protective Analytical Facility in 2009 and the Home Team Investigation Laboratory at Police Cantonment Complex in 2016.

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May Ong, Director (CBRNE), HTX.  PHOTO: Natasha Razak

That same year, she helped launch HTX’s Protective, Analytical & Assessment Facility (PAAF) at ICA’s Pasir Panjang Scanning Station. This three-storey facility houses six high-tech laboratories, including one that’s equipped to detect and analyse radiological and nuclear materials.

COVID-19: On Standby 24/7
During a visit to PAAF in early March 2020, when the swab testing at the checkpoints had just started, I witnessed a team of HTX scientists working tirelessly to process swab samples collected at our land, sea and air checkpoints. To detect imported cases of COVID-19, the scientists used a test kit that had been swiftly developed and deployed by HTX and its industry partner.

Swab samples were collected from arriving travellers at our checkpoints who had COVID-19 symptoms (such as fever or respiratory ailments). The samples were then sent to PAAF for testing. 

“The swab test operation at our air, land and sea checkpoints was a multi-agency effort,” explained May. “The CBRNE team’s task was to run tests on the swab samples to detect and identify travellers who had COVID-19 quickly, so that they could receive treatment. This also helped to curb the spread of the virus in the community.”

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Testing ground: Inside PAAF at ICA’s Pasir Panjang Scanning Station, HTX scientists don full Personal Protective Equipment when processing samples for COVID-19. PHOTOS: Tiffany Tan

During the early phase of supporting the Home Team’s COVID-19 operations, May’s team processed as many as 500 samples a day. “The completion of one test cycle takes approximately three hours,” she explained. “When there was a high volume of samples, we put in extra hours to ensure the tests are completed before the next shift took over.” 

Team members adjusted their work schedules to be on standby 24/7. Heightened safety measures were also introduced to ensure safety when collecting, processing and analysing samples. “Given the potential risks, we have to remain vigilant at all times,” said May. “That’s why we don full Personal Protective Equipment in the laboratory.”

Commitment and Constant Innovation
As the Home Team’s COVID-19 operations evolve, what helps her to stay ahead of the game is the fact that she’s faced similar challenges before. During the H1N1 outbreak of 2009, May and her team set up a biological laboratory at Woodlands Checkpoint to bolster the Home Team’s bio-surveillance capabilities and help detect CBRNE threats at our land checkpoints.  

Recalling that period as well as the 2003 SARS outbreak, May believes Singapore is much better prepared to fight COVID-19. “We’ve witnessed many advancements in S&T in Singapore over the past decade,” she said. “For example, one major difference is that we’ve had more test kits available during the early stages of this outbreak. This can be seen through the test kits developed by HTX and A*STAR, as well as the antibodies test from Duke-NUS Medical School.”

What hasn’t changed is the commitment of her team in applying S&T to support the Home Team. That’s why May keeps a watchful eye on her team members on the ground, even as they prepare for the next phase of COVID-19 operations. 

“There’s no panacea, and the virulence of COVID-19 seems to be much higher than what we’ve encountered before,” she explained. “That’s why all of us as individuals must take care and play our part, to help flatten the curve of the infections.”

Don’t forget to check out:
- One Home Team: Responding to COVID-19 (Part 1)
- One Home Team: Responding to COVID-19 (Part 2)
- One Home Team: Responding to COVID-19 (Part 3)
© 2019 Ministry of Home Affairs, Singapore. All Rights Reserved.

  1. by Fazlee Rosli
  2. 24 April 2020
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