Thought Leadership: Laboratories and their services will be in the spotlight in a post-vaccine world

by Arjun Oberoi

Recent weeks have been filled with positive news around promising vaccine candidates and the pace at which the world came together to develop them has been phenomenal. In a year where economies dipped and several industries have stagnated, any progress in the battle against transmission of the SARS-Cov-2 virus is clearly a moment for celebration.

However, the reality is that not everyone is going to get a vaccine immediately. Until there is widespread access, we are likely going to have to fight the disease with the tools we have been using for the last 8 months: social distancing, protective equipment, frequent sanitization and lots of testing. And even after a vaccine is available, how will nervous governments know who has been vaccinated, and  get assurance that they are not opening their borders to asymptomatic people and putting at risk a population of people who have not gained immunity?

I recently discussed that very question with leading disease experts Professor Dale Fisher and Dr George Siber. We all agreed that any vaccine is simply going to be a tool and not the ‘end’ of COVID-19. Post-market surveillance to understand epidemiology patterns, fast and accurate diagnosis and the ability to effectively isolate cases will still be critical to predict disease trends and adjust strategies. Professor Fisher rightly mentioned that those most successful at combatting an outbreak demonstrate strong co-ordination and efficient use of all tools and resources, not reliance on one particular solution.

And that’s what we need to do –  build a holistic approach to the COVID-19 fight.  One of the companies in our portfolio, Everlife, is a leading healthcare distribution platform in Asia, and they are a great demonstration of this at work. Testing is still a major cornerstone to detect and control spread, and our team in India launched the first ICMR approved COVID-19 antibody test in India and currently offers COVID-19 lab solutions using 3 major test methodologies: RT-PCR, ELISA and CLIA. In Malaysia, we adapted our proprietary Laboratory Information Management System, ChemoLIMS, to handle COVID-19 samples and successfully installed it in a record-breaking 3 weeks despite movement control. In Singapore, the team is working on several projects to use an automated pipetting system to process large volumes of COVID-19 samples and improve testing throughput and speed. In Indonesia, we have been supplying hospitals with beds and critical care equipment since they have drastically increased capacity. We are also looking to boost our armoury of protective and anti-viral products, and recently launched a ground-breaking air disinfectant from Novaerus, that kills all airborne microorganisms, including coronavirus, on contact. Post-vaccination, certain patient groups, who may be unable to mount a florid immune response to certain vaccines may require their IgG levels to be tested periodically, to ascertain protection and guide boosters and alternative vaccine regimens.  It will be several months before we have more clarity on these questions and we continue to work with the key stakeholders in the value chain to make sure that we remain at the forefront of bringing accessible testing solutions to communities in our markets.

As a distribution platform, we have the unique opportunity through interactions with customers to understand what they need to fight a disease outbreak.  A report by Informa Markets estimated the clinical laboratory services market to reach USD 261 billion by end of 2020, with Asia contributing USD 8.5 billion to the figure. So while we eagerly await the vaccine, the chance to travel and gather freely again, we can’t forget the critical role that the laboratory and the people who run it play. If anything, COVID-19 has exposed our vulnerabilities, which will surely be a significant driver for new products and technology in the future.