ASEAN countries strengthen pandemic research cooperation

Countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are stepping up research collaboration with a specific focus on genomic surveillance of virus strains and research into immunity against COVID-19 in regional populations, in order to boost the region’s ability to combat COVID-19 and future pandemics by sharing scientific data and research.

These include a regional project analysing genomic surveillance data, co-led by Singapore and Malaysia through Singapore’s Bioinformatics Institute (BII) and A*STAR Infectious Diseases Labs, which are research institutes under Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research known as A*STAR, and the National Institutes of Biotechnology Malaysia.

The project will provide up-to-date genomic information on virus strains detected in the region, A*STAR said in a statement, adding that the partnership leverages existing biotechnology and bioinformatics capabilities within ASEAN and builds on existing national genome sequencing efforts. Genomic sequencing can help identify variants by detecting tiny differences in genetic code.

“The emergence of COVID-19 variants has added another layer of complexity for public health officials. To better understand the impact of these variants, such as its transmissibility and clinical severity, it is critical to identify and differentiate the strains,” the A*STAR statement said.

Looking beyond the current pandemic, regional research cooperation will advance the region’s preparedness for future outbreaks by strengthening linkages and cultivating new networks between ASEAN member states for the sharing of information on viruses, the Singaporean research agency said.

“The pace and extent of COVID-19’s spread have shown how infectious diseases do not recognise national borders. These cross-border collaborations are essential in sharing data and developing a broader view,” an A*STAR spokesperson told University World News.

“Overall, the genomics surveillance proposal aims to bolster these current efforts and to allow ASEAN-specific monitoring of COVID-19 sequences in this region,” BII Executive Director Sebastian Maurer-Stroh said.

“ASEAN institutes of higher learning [are also] participating in these proposals and it is hoped that the collaboration will go on to boost the region’s technological capabilities and talent base in these specific research areas.”

Genomic sequencing project

Systematic bio-surveillance of viral genomes in the ASEAN region can assist in detecting potential transmission between countries as well as discovering new strains with mutations that could affect diagnostics or vaccination. “This information serves to inform national contact tracing processes as well as evaluate the effectiveness of mitigation measures,” according to A*STAR.

Sharing real-time genomic information on COVID-19 strains within the region will help public health authorities to maintain a broader, constantly updated picture of virus strains detected both nationally and regionally.

“All ASEAN members can contribute their COVID-19 sequences for analysis under the genomics surveillance proposal. The resulting genomic information will be displayed on an ASEAN-centric phylogenetic dashboard that will be made available to fellow ASEAN member states, jointly maintained and curated by Singapore and Malaysia,” A*STAR said.

ASEAN states have already been contributing genomic information to the GISAID (Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data) platform – an international data initiative for sharing of virus genomes, including the coronavirus causing COVID-19, to enable rapid and open access to virus information.

Maurer-Stroh said the dedicated dashboard charting the genetic evolution of the virus has already been developed and deployed. “The next phase is to maintain the flow of genomes from national surveillance as well as workshops to train and engage all member states to make best use of the platform,” he said.

Investigating immune responses to vaccines

The Philippines and Singapore are co-leading a regional study to assess the levels of immunity within ASEAN communities at different stages, including before vaccination and how long immunity lasts after vaccination.

The study will look into the effectiveness of seroconversion of vaccines, which refers to the development of specific antibodies in the blood serum as a result of a COVID-19 infection or vaccination. It will assess levels of immunity at different stages including before and after vaccination.

The project will be led by the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine and Council for Health Research and Development of the Philippines, Singapore’s Duke-NUS Medical School and the Diagnostics Development (DxD) Hub – a national platform hosted by A*STAR – and taps into the ASEAN Diagnostics (Dx) Initiative networks, expanding its list of priority diseases prevalent in the region, which include dengue, tuberculosis, hepatitis B and malaria.

The ASEAN Dx Initiative promotes public and private partnerships within the region to commercialise diagnostic technologies.

Other participants within ASEAN include Indonesia’s Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology, Malaysia’s University of Malaya faculty of medicine, Thailand’s King Chulalongkorn Memorial Hospital in Bangkok and Vietnam’s Oxford University Clinical Research Unit.

The sero-surveillance project is the first multi-country regional study on the serology response to vaccination, according to A*STAR, and is planned as a 12-month longitudinal serology study of vaccine recipients’ immune responses.

“The primary scientific goals of the study are to investigate the effectiveness of seroconversion and longevity of immunity of the COVID-19 vaccines used in participating countries. This could also help uncover clues on post-vaccination observations, such as vaccine breakthrough infections,” said Sidney Yee, CEO of the Diagnostics Development Hub.

“With multiple vaccines being deployed and with the evolving variants of concern, this study will potentially offer impactful insights in the fight against COVID-19, for the scientific community, public health practitioners, government policy-makers and industry,” she said.

“This multi-lateral collaboration will build on the strong foundation of networks and boost earlier communication among the scientific teams, which will contribute to early pandemic preparedness in future,” she added.

The two major research project collaborations were part of proposals drawn up by Singapore, outgoing chair of ASEAN science ministers, on strengthening ASEAN countries’ technological capabilities to contribute to the global battle against COVID-19.

They were endorsed by ASEAN science and technology ministers during an informal online meeting in June chaired by Thailand’s Minister of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation Anek Laothamatas, according to the joint ministerial statement.

The ministerial statement said the meeting also “underscored the importance of the establishment of a platform for STI [science, technology and innovation] information sharing, particularly on COVID-19 research and development, for exchanging the latest strategies and plans to deal with the pandemic in respective ASEAN member states”.