Science Cafe (Aug 2023): mRNA and COVID

3 min read

On 25th August 2023, Science Café hosted a session revolving around the COVID-19 vaccination.

First we had Ms Evelyn Pang, General Manager from Moderna Biotech Singapore, who gave an overview on the role of mRNA and how Moderna was racing against time to produce a vaccine. The COVID-19 pandemic was declared on 11 March 2020 and in just two days, Moderna made the decision to start researching for a vaccine. Normally, it can take up to 20 years. But with communities coming together for information sharing, and processes running in parallel with one another, Moderna managed to administer their vaccine to their first patient in Dec 2020, after obtaining FDA’s authorization. The first Moderna shot was actually administered much earlier, in Mar 2020, to volunteers who participated in trials.

Ms Evelyn Pang and Dr. Sherlock Lai

Moderna’s vaccine utilises mRNA. They are the messenger for cells to create proteins that will then trigger our immune system to create antibodies.  Ms Pang likened them to a Grab delivery service, delivering necessary food to specific people. mRNA technology has been researched on since before the pandemic and the success of mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 is now accelerating research on mRNA therapeutics. There is potential for mRNA technology to treat other diseases (e.g. lungs, oncology).

Our second speaker, Dr. Yung Chee Fu, Senior Consultant at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital and Associate Professor at Duke-NUS Medical School, shared his perspective when the pandemic first started. One of the challenges was defining COVID-19 in respect to its severity and what it means to have a percentage of the population being asymptomatic. His tasks involved determining high-risk groups, the percentage of death amongst community cases, and assessing the transmission risk of infants.

Dr Yung Chee Fu

When one of the infants in the hospital was tested positive, various tests were carried out. It is interesting to note that while nurses tested negative, the table, cot and things surrounding the infant had a positive test for COVID-19, shedding light on transmission.

Our last speaker, Dr. Sherlock Lai, Medical Director at Moderna Biotech Singapore, ventured on the future of the mRNA platform and how it would prepare us for newer strains. Ever improving, they hope that the next vaccination race can be done in an even shorter duration. Indeed, it is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ the next pandemic hits.

Panel discussion with speakers

Check out Science Café at Science Centre Singapore. Our next session features palaeontologists and a new dinosaur cast on display!

Written by Lydia Konig and Sng Seow Koon
Photography by Raphael Ng


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