The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the development of multiple types of diagnostic kits, based on different methods and targeting different biomarkers. There are continuous innovations in this field as researchers and scientists strive to improve the testing methods available. As the pandemic continues, multiple challenges for managing it are emerging as countries open up. It is critical to observe how these developments may lead to a shift in the testing trends globally.
We have been talking with many COVID-19 suppliers in the APAC markets. Jia Jhing Sia, the Research Analyst at AcuBiz Consulting, has been focusing particularly on the Singapore market to understand the strategies of the Singapore government as well as the leading IVD companies that supply COVID-19 tests in the country. In this interview, she is in discussion with Dr MengHan Kuok, Founder and Managing Director of Camtech about the impact of the pandemic on the medical industry and the direction that the COVID-19 diagnostics market is heading.
JJ, AcuBiz: Thank you Dr MengHan for freeing up some of your time for a discussion with me today. I first stumbled upon Camtech as I was searching for Singaporean diagnostic companies but have since noticed that Camtech is a multinational company. Could you begin by giving us a brief introduction to your company’s background?
Dr MengHan: You are right. Camtech has a presence in Singapore, the USA, and the UK. Camtech Diagnostics, which is based in Singapore, started in 2012 with a mission to develop rapid point-of-care diagnostics based on biosensors. We focus on a range of rapid test platforms that can provide real-time information.
Currently, we design, develop, and manufacture microfluidic point-of-care tests for biodefense, food safety testing, clinical diagnostics, and research applications.
JJ, AcuBiz: How is Camtech Diagnostics responding to the COVID-19 pandemic? What products are your company currently offering and are you in the process of developing more products?
Dr MengHan: In response to the COVID-19 crisis, our main focus has been to bring to market reliable and quality rapid tests and lab-based tests in a timely manner. We are providing rapid antibody, rapid antigen, and PCR kits. The antibody kits detect IgG and IgM and are most effective after 7-10 days after a person gets infected. The rapid antigen kits, on the other hand, detect infection earlier on and are most effective up to 7 days from infection. The antibody tests are best used for surveillance of the population for immunity. They can be particularly valuable in the future after mass vaccination becomes available. Antigen tests are similar to PCR tests as they focus on detecting the presence of the pathogen. However, in spite of the advantages, they offer in terms of portability and speed, they are still not as sensitive and specific as PCR tests.
In addition to these test methods, we are looking into the possibility of other methods that can make testing easier, more accessible, and also accurate. For instance, we are currently looking at developing saliva-based rapid tests, and also how to detect the different strains emerging.
JJ, AcuBiz: What contributed to your ability to quickly develop rapid test kits?
Dr MengHan: As Camtech has been in the diagnostics and rapid test industry for a while, it was quite straightforward for us to shift our focus to the COVID-19 pandemic as we had the platforms and expertise available. We were prompted to act quickly by seeing the reports from the scientific and medical community in China earlier this year. Seeing the response on the ground here in Singapore was also a major factor in shifting our focus to COVID-19 diagnostics development.
Additionally, we collaborated with A*STAR as they have developed a strong background in viral diseases, from as far back as the previous SARS crisis. We have also been working with JN Medsys to offer PCR lab-based tests in Singapore as well as the regional and global markets.
JJ, AcuBiz: What are the current COVID-19 testing trends in Singapore? Could you briefly describe the testing strategies that the Singaporean government is enforcing?
Dr MengHan: Singapore’s combination of having a very fast and effective government response and the presence of local companies having the required knowhow and infrastructure has allowed us to roll out testing in a short time and widely, on a broad scale.
Currently, anyone entering the country has to be quarantined for 7-14 days and swabbed for a PCR lab test.
There was a high demand for lab-based testing during the spread among foreign workers that was challenging to meet. However, the country has since managed to effectively ramp up the testing capability to successfully complete the mass testing program for foreign worker dorms.
The situation is now well under control and there is no increasing testing demand from the government unless there is a second wave. I think that Singapore has done a great job of responding quickly and effectively to the pandemic.
The next thing to look out for is when travel opens up as Singapore is a travel hub. The challenge will be to quickly and reliably offer to test for travelers. We could potentially see a shift in the types of tests being used. This all depends on the extent to which the government eventually decides to open up travel.
JJ, AcuBiz: How does the market demand for rapid tests compared to the demand for PCR-based tests in this market? Who are the key suppliers for COVID-19 diagnostics tests in Singapore?
Dr MengHan: Currently, there is a much broader demand for PCR tests as it is used for definitive diagnosis of patients. Rapid tests are used where lab infrastructure is not available and also when results are required quickly. Comparatively, the price for rapid tests is about half of that or less of PCR tests.
Singapore’s testing labs generally use high throughput automated systems like the Perkin Elmer or ThermoFisher workstations.
JJ, AcuBiz: How has COVID-19 affected your business and the diagnostics industry in general?
Dr MengHan: The COVID-19 diagnostics market is a highly competitive market, globally. This is in contrast to the niche markets that we were operating in previously, where we have been offering food safety testing and unique microfluidic devices for research applications. So, it has been a unique experience for us.
I think that COVID-19 has also brought the diagnostics and medical industry into the spotlight. For example, a year ago, not many people would know what a PCR test is, but currently, it is a term that is frequently used. This is great as there has been increased awareness and accelerated developments in the industry.
JJ, AcuBiz: Which international markets are you planning to expand to? How has the process been and have you faced any significant challenges?
Dr MengHan: We are currently targeting the US and India markets. We are in the process of obtaining regulatory clearance for both countries. India is an interesting market to expand to, as it is a large developing country with a lot of price constraints.
It has been a challenge for us to expand to international markets from a small market like Singapore where we have been active. And, diagnostics is not an area that we have an inherent advantage in, which is another challenge for us. Being in Singapore, our business success is largely export-dependent.
We are facing challenges that we haven’t previously faced while expanding within the domestic market. Supply chain challenges were among the major issues we had to sort out fast and effectively. Initially, there was a lot of panic and reactionary demand causing supply chains to be stretched. Now, people are trying to figure out what is a sustainable amount of testing that will be needed in the near future. If we are able to accurately forecast demand, we will be able to better resolve the supply chain issue.
JJ, AcuBiz: How do you see the global COVID-19 testing market evolving in the coming few months?
Dr MengHan: Lab-based PCR testing will continue to be extremely strong. Meanwhile, rapid tests will continue to improve and evolve. I think, we will realize the full value of rapid tests later on, especially when mass vaccinations and travel restrictions open up. Rapid tests may even replace lab-based tests if there are enough evidence and belief in its reliability and accuracy, which we hope to be at the forefront of. When testing becomes more prevalent, we will also see increased diversity in terms of testing approaches.
I also look forward to a growing ASEAN market as the member countries build up their lab testing infrastructure. The focus will be on developing nations and how we can help them to deploy tests affordably to achieve mass testing.
JJ, AcuBiz: Looking ahead, what are some of the key things that you think we consumers should look out for in terms of COVID-19 testing?
Dr MengHan: COVID-19 testing is quite mainstream right now. In fact, consumers are overloaded with information – how people are getting tested, how governments are responding, etc. As consumers, we don’t have much of a choice as we have to take lab-based tests for clearance. As more choices are offered, it will get quite interesting as we would be able to choose how we can get tested from the various methods available, and as and when we want to.