Despite the devastating news of the surging number of COVID-19 cases at the start of the year, the pandemic has become a catalyst for initiating amazing collaborative efforts between researchers and other professionals from academia, industry, and government sectors. As governments seek to increase testing capabilities, they rely on diagnostic companies to respond quickly and assist in the detection and monitoring of the spread of the disease. The early release of the viral genome sequence has also given scientists a kickstart to develop effective diagnostic tests and treatments.
Veredus Laboratories is one of the first few companies in Singapore to develop a COVID-19 test kit. The company has since developed multiple types of test kits, which have obtained approval from the Health Authority of Singapore as well as international authorities for deployment both locally and globally.
In this interview, Jia Jhing Sia, Research Analyst at AcuBiz Consulting discusses with Dr Damian Foo, Product Director of Veredus Laboratories about the rapid response offered by the company to the COVID-19 pandemic, how they were able to overcome key challenges along the way and their future plans and strategies to support the fight against COVID-19.
This is part of a series of interviews with Singaporean diagnostics companies regarding COVID-19 testing as Singapore has recently been recognised as having the highest testing rate among the ASEAN countries. Our objective is to develop insights on the government’s strategies for meeting this increasing demand and assess how the domestic diagnostic companies are rising to the challenge of tackling the pandemic both locally and globally.
JJ, AcuBiz: Thank you Dr Damian for taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview today. Could we begin with a brief introduction to your company’s background?
Dr Damian Foo: Veredus Laboratories was incorporated in 2003 focusing on designing, developing, and manufacturing PCR test kits. In 2006, we collaborated with STMicroelectronics, a multinational electronics and semiconductor manufacturer headquartered in Geneva Switzerland, to develop the Lab-On-Chip (LOC) platform. Over the years, we introduced the VerePLEX™ Biosystem and the companion LOC test panels to the market and Veredus is currently the licensed and legal manufacturer for both.
Then, in 2014, Accuron Technologies under Temasek Holdings became the majority shareholder of Veredus, and we continued to expand our LOC business with more product launches to the global marketplace.
In 2018, Veredus was acquired by Sekisui Chemical Co., Ltd., a Japanese conglomerate, which engages in the manufacturing of high-performance plastics for medical, automotive, and information technology as well as urban infrastructure products and unit housing construction. Today, Veredus remains as part of the Sekisui family as we continue to offer innovative solutions for bio-surveillance and diagnostic needs.
JJ, AcuBiz: Could you describe the role of Veredus Laboratories in the battle against COVID-19 in Singapore? What products are you offering and are there any more in the pipeline?
Dr Damian Foo: As early as January this year, Veredus has begun developing a diagnostic test for COVID-19. In those days, the world recognized the Coronavirus’ name as 2019-nCoV, but only a few months later, it was renamed as SARS-CoV-2. In February, HSA Singapore approved our VereCoV™ Detection Kit for In Vitro Diagnostic (IVD) use and I believe we were the first manufacturer from the private sector in HSA’s approval list to receive this Provisional Authorization. With this, our VerePLEX™ Biosystem and VereCoV™ Detection Kit were deployed in Singapore by the Government as part of the screening measure against COVID-19. Till today, our diagnostic tests are being used regularly to support Singapore’s efforts in surveying and monitoring the spread of COVID-19.
Over the subsequent months, Veredus continued to develop and launch more diagnostic tests for Singapore and global use. Today, we have several IVD products for COVID-19 including four granted by HSA Singapore and EU, one granted by the Philippines FDA, and another awaiting approval from the US FDA. Our product offering includes Real-Time RT-PCR and serological tests in this battle against COVID-19.
At this moment, we are still continuing with new product development, primarily to improve and enhance our current test assays with better sensitivity and quicker turnaround time.
JJ, AcuBiz: What contributed to Veredus Laboratories’ ability to quickly respond to the pandemic?
Dr Damian Foo: Within Veredus, we have several functional teams including Management, Quality, R&D, Manufacturing, Sales, and Technical Support. Our key strength recites in teamwork. We are a team not just because we can coexist and work well together, but because we respect, care and look after each other. This allows us to remain dynamic and strengthen our ability to react and respond very quickly to situations including this COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, we read about this Coronavirus spread in China as early as December last year, and immediately, our teams scrambled to design and develop a detection test fearing that Singapore will need to deploy ways to survey the spread of this virus to our shore. Within the next few weeks, we already had a ready-to-use testing product for IVD use.
JJ, AcuBiz: What is your estimated production capacity?
Dr Damian Foo: Each of our product ranges has different production capacity sizes. In general, today’s capacity is estimated at 30,000 LOC tests and 5M real-time PCR tests in a month. However, if necessary, we could easily raise this bar by several folds with a preparation lead time of 4 to 6 weeks.
JJ, AcuBiz: As your company offers both molecular tests and serological tests for COVID-19, how does the market size for both these categories of tests compare in Singapore as well as in the Asia Pacific region in general?
Dr Damian Foo: To my best knowledge, the market size for COVID-19 molecular testing is larger than serological testing today and will remain so, until there is a shift or new method of detection. Molecular testing remains the gold standard due to its superior accuracy and sensitivity which is why it is commonly deployed in almost every testing laboratory.
That being said, I would also recognize that both molecular and serological tests complement each other very well, as each has its own benefits for different usage and interpreted results. Also, if we are looking at a rapid test method, this is more accessible as it is mostly not instrument-driven and has a lower level of test complexity.
JJ, AcuBiz: As mentioned above, your products have received not only HSA approval but also approval from other countries such as the Philippines and the EU. Which international markets are you targeting or planning to target? What challenges did you face when expanding to these new markets?
Dr Damian Foo: We are currently targeting the global market due to the widespread prevalence of COVID-19, while regionally, we target S.E.A countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Thailand.
At the start of this COVID-19 pandemic, logistics, particularly goods movement across countries, was a major issue due to lockdowns and in several countries, which affected our supply chain. Veredus faced several challenges in managing our import of raw materials and the export of finished products. Also, customs clearance for COVID-19 related products in many countries was more stringent, resulting in delays. We are now glad that the world has reacted promptly and overcame these logistical issues.
JJ, AcuBiz: How did your company overcome the pricing challenges related to PCR-based COVID-19 tests?
Dr Damian Foo: Over time, as more COVID-19 testing products get introduced to the market, competitiveness increases, and prices will also be affected. This is a typical challenge, which most manufacturers would eventually face as the market’s price range becomes more dynamic. Veredus overcame this by delivering easy to use products with high sensitivity and reliability to our customers.
By pricing our products competitively, Veredus aims to ensure our products are deployable and scalable, and at the same time, we always provide close support to our customers winning their trust in our brand and the quality of our products.
JJ, AcuBiz: Do you think the testing methods for COVID-19 will change significantly?
Dr Damian Foo: There is always a possibility for healthcare authorities to explore other alternatives as long as new testing methods are reliable and test results can be used confidently to manage COVID-19.
For example, Veredus has recently launched an alternative COVID-19 testing method using saliva as the specimen type instead of nasopharyngeal or oropharyngeal swabs. This method of specimen collection is non-invasive and less complicated without the need for another healthcare worker to perform the swabbing. COVID-19 testing would be an easier and more comfortable way of sample collection.
JJ, AcuBiz: How do you see this COVID-19 testing demand changing in the coming months in the global markets? And, how would companies like Veredus respond to them?
Dr Damian Foo: As I mentioned, we believe there would still be a demand for COVID-19 testing even after this pandemic or when the spread of this disease is more controlled. This also means that we have to continue our research and understand how coronavirus evolves over time and also, whether subsequent COVID-19 would still affect our human population so badly.
Veredus has always been researching the latest scientific news, in particular for infectious diseases. Routinely, there are new studies and findings published by the scientific community globally. This also includes COVID-19 research as well as how the diagnostic method can be further streamlined or improved as part of the disease management regime. With these, we are constantly keeping ourselves up-to-date and thinking ways to provide better testing solutions for our customers.