The recent call by the health director-general for stepping up Covid-19 research “to conduct more local in-depth research and to understand this disease further and its consequence” is a signal that commitment to excellence in research is here to stay.
We must have better homegrown research data to shape strategies to deal with future pandemics, with input from the richer economies.
The Covid-19 pandemic has baffled us, and remains as mystifying as it was when it first hit our shores. Amongst the questions often asked are:
- Why do long-term health problems continue even after recovery from Covid-19 infection?
- Why do breakthrough infections occur despite full-dose vaccinations?
- Should previous infections be considered for one to receive a complete vaccination dose?
Obviously, Covid-19 is like no other infectious disease the nation has encountered. The research conducted needs to be adjusted to our goals, incorporating new sciences and applying scientific tools from the various disciplines, specifically molecular biology and immunology.
We need to incorporate enough human capital with appropriate talent in the newer trend disciplines.
As stated in TIGERS’ Get Immunologists’ Perspective article in the New Straits Times (NST) dated August 27, 2021, a willingness to transform is vital:
- An emphasis on translational research, whereby clinical data is investigated via scientific means, which can then be applied to patient care.
- A need for a national programme under an independent national central body, facilitating researchers to seamlessly interact and collaborate, since expertise is now dispersed among various organisations and ministries.
- Include the perspectives of immunologists alongside other related disciplines. Expertise in immunology is important to mitigate Covid-19 infection. When it comes to immunity, immunologists will know best.
- We can follow the examples of research-intensive nations, where Covid-19 mitigation is led by researchers who are both immunologists and clinicians; for example, Germany’s Ugur Sahin who discovered mRNA technology, and the United States’ Dr Anthony Fauci, who is the advisor to the government on pandemics.
What is expected is not just an increase of Covid-19 research, but to reposition the research capacity to combat emerging and re-emerging diseases in the long haul:
- A need to examine where we have fallen short, through dialogues among experts, for example, comparing how countries modify vaccination. In certain countries, individuals with past infections do not take full doses, for example, Italy, Singapore, and Hong Kong.
- To list studies prioritising impacts and benefits. Researchers can bid for relevant industry awards.
- Innovative research should be encouraged, especially by returning talents who might have newer technologies and research tools. Such researchers with no home track record are not to be penalised if they are making their first bids.
- Cross collaborations between multiple research centres should be upheld.
Funding must be realistic and adequate, with provisions to increase for projects that show promises. There is an imperative need to cultivate a research-friendly environment within an ecosystem that facilitates immunology research.
TIGERS welcome the health minister’s call for the setting-up of a Suruhanjaya Reformasi Kesihatan. This commission should prioritise the existing research capacity, especially with regard to emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases.
The NST leader on July 27, 2021, summarised it very aptly: “Covid-19 has taught us many lessons, one of which is: we shouldn’t make decisions for tomorrow with today’s lens. Or worse, with yesterday’s lens”.
Dr Amir Hamzah Latiff, Prof Dr Lokman Mohd Nor and Prof Dr Rahim Mohd Noah are members of the Translational Immunology Group for Education, Research and Society (TIGERS).
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