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New saliva ART as accurate as PCR test, can detect Omicron

With an accuracy rate of 97%, it takes about 15min to detect different Covid-19 variants, including Omicron

Scientists here have developed a saliva antigen rapid test (ART) which is just as accurate as the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, yet takes only around 15 minutes to detect Covid-19.

The self-administered test has an accuracy rate of 97 per cent and is able to detect different Covid-19 viral variants, including Omicron. The test kit could hit the market in as soon as three months.

The 15 minutes or so needed to obtain the results of the test, known as the Parallel Amplified Saliva rapid POint-of-caRe Test (Pasport), is similar to the shortest time needed for current ARTs. For PCR tests, it takes between a few hours and three days to get results.

The test is the result of a research collaboration between Duke-NUS Medical School, Singapore General Hospital (SGH), National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS) and the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Dr Danny Tng, a medical officer at the Department of Infectious Diseases in SGH, and the lead inventor behind the test, said Duke-NUS and SingHealth have entered into a licensing agreement with medical supply company Digital Life Line for its commercialisation.

Professor Soo Khee Chee, Benjamin Sheares Professor in Academic Medicine at the SingHealth Duke-NUS Oncology Academic Clinical Programme, said the test, which requires the approval of the Health Sciences Authority for use here, could be available in the next three to six months.

One important innovation of the new test is that it can be done at any point in time - even after food. Current saliva tests have not been considered reliable enough to roll out on a large scale, as the concentration of viral particles in saliva "drops steeply" after one eats or drinks, Dr Tng noted.

For instance, the ability of other saliva ARTs to detect the Sars-CoV-2 virus after food is around 11.7 per cent to 23.1 per cent, he said.

"Therefore, saliva antigen rapid tests are usually reliable only when they are performed first thing in the morning, after an overnight fast and before breakfast or brushing teeth. This makes testing of saliva samples at other times of the day less reliable."

The scientists were able to remedy this using a two-stage process for the Pasport.

Like most ARTs, Pasport uses nanoparticles to bind to the virus, but with a difference - an additional amplification mechanism is built into it such that it uses more nanoparticles in its test than other ARTs, said Dr Tng. This means the viral "signal" will be a lot stronger, allowing the Pasport to detect low viral loads, such as after a meal or drink, he added.

To capture viral variants which may otherwise evade detection through testing, the researchers have another trick up their sleeve.

Apart from using an antibody placed at the test line to capture viral proteins, just like in conventional ART kits, additional ACE2 proteins are used to capture the virus. The ACE2 protein is the entry point for the coronavirus to infect human cells.

Skills Demand for the Future Economy report focuses on 3 key sectors

With the jobs market evolving quickly and the nature of jobs set to change, Singapore has made an effort to identify the sort of skills that the jobs of the future may demand.

Before today's skills become irrelevant, SkillsFuture Singapore has made a push to identify the skills workers would need to stay ahead of the curve, said Education Minister Chan Chun Sing.

The inaugural Skills Demand for the Future Economy report will help workers plan ahead, he added. Mr Chan said: "We hope individuals will be able to contextualise the report to their own situation - their work experience, strengths and aspirations - and use this to plan ahead for their lifelong learning journey."

The report, he added, does not cover the entire economy but focuses on jobs and skills in three sectors that he called "key growth areas" for the country.

It also identifies the top 20 clusters of skills in the digital, green and care sectors that will be most needed in the next one to three years.

The Covid-19 pandemic has underlined the need for digitalisation while the need for a green economy is becoming critical for countries such as Singapore. The third key area, the care sector, is linked to Singapore's ageing population.

The report identifies 20 key skills clusters in the three sectors, called "priority skills".

In the digital sector, the top three are technology application, data analysis and market research. In the green sector, the report highlights the need for skills involving green process design, carbon footprint management and environmental management system.

In the care sector, there will be a need for skilled professionals dealing with the ethical conduct of staff, and managing stakeholders, among other things.

Educators told The Straits Times that Singaporeans should focus not only on gaining sector-specific skills but also general skills identified in the report.

Professor Lam Khee Poh, dean of the National University of Singapore School of Design and Environment, said: "It is important to work on the core skills the report identifies, like critical and creative thinking, because more so than specific technical skills, these help you learn and adapt. Specific, technical skills can come after."

64.5% of those polled slightly confident their skills will be relevant

A straw poll of the audience at a panel discussion on future skills showed 64.5 per cent were only slightly confident that their skills would be relevant in a few years' time.

However, business leaders said this is a positive response that shows Singaporeans are not complacent about their skills mastery and are open to upgrading.

The poll was conducted among about 550 participants at the Skills Demand for the Future Economy Forum held as a hybrid event yesterday, where Education Minister Chan Chun Sing unveiled the inaugural Skills Demand for the Future Economy report.

The report pinpoints the top 20 clusters of skills in the digital, green and care sectors most needed in the next one to three years.

The panel discussion was held after Mr Chan's speech and featured Dr Gog Soon Joo, chief skills officer at SkillsFuture Singapore; Mr Shee Tse Koon, group executive and Singapore country head at DBS Bank; Mr Yuen Kuan Moon, Singtel's chief executive officer; Mr Robert Chong, Sembcorp Industries' chief corporate and human resource officer; and Ms Chin Wei Jia, HMI Group's CEO.

In the poll, another 19 per cent of respondents said they were not confident their skills would be relevant in the next three to five years, while the remaining 16.5 per cent said they were very confident.

Dr Gog said it was heartening that the majority of respondents were in a state of "conscious incompetence", adding that a survey done by SkillsFuture last year showed a gap between employer and employee perceptions of the relevance of workers' skills.

She said employers were more likely to think their workers' skills would not be relevant for the next few years, while employees were less likely to think so.

The panellists also took questions from the audience, including one on whether it is realistic for a mid-career worker to make the leap to acquire new skills like data analytics.

Mr Yuen said it is absolutely possible for workers to make the leap and workers should think about how to reframe their skill sets, instead of focusing on roles they can no longer do. - THE STRAITS TIMES

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