Photo: Bloomberg

There are storm clouds overhead in Southeast Asia, as resurgent Covid-19 infections and new variants drive rising cases in many nations. But there is light on the horizon as we look beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.

In our publication, “The Covid-19 High-Wire Act Continues, But So Too Does Opportunity”, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) explores the near-term challenges and encouraging innovations emerging from the last 18 months.

In Singapore, Prime Minister Lee’s recent announcement of phasing towards “normal” from June 13 offers a welcome look at a nation pioneering positive steps towards a post-pandemic reality. Transformations in science and technology — not least our Covid-19 vaccines — not only promise an end to the pandemic, but also the chance to deliver more equitable healthcare in the world that follows.

Transformation in a post-pandemic world

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At the time of writing our original white paper “Detect, Develop, and Deliver: A Holistic Approach to Managing Outbreaks” in February 2020, global case numbers sat at 78,000, and deaths at 2,500. It is sobering to see how much has changed since, with over 3.5 million deaths, and 170 million cases reported since. This is likely to be a significant undercount.

In the original paper, we argued the path to tackling Covid-19 was to detect its spread, develop healthcare and societal mitigations, and deliver interventions that help save lives.

At the onset of the pandemic there were miscued attempts to balance perceived economic and healthcare impacts. It is clear from nations such as Australia and New Zealand that acting quickly and decisively to tackle Covid-19 was the most effective strategy in the early stages of the pandemic.

Singapore is generally praised for its own efforts in tackling Covid-19, aligning with much of the suggested playbook outlined in our early analysis. Systems such as TraceTogether and SafeEntry have provided valuable platforms to track the spread of Covid-19 and break chains of infection, supported by what Lee has described as the nation’s “self-discipline, public spirit, and support of (technical tools)”.

Digital applications to track and trace exposure to Covid-19 are the most obvious of these tools. Alongside them you can include rapid development and scale-up of diagnostics, data-driven analysis of disease burden and outbreaks, and the wonderfully efficacious Covid-19 vaccines now working to change the trajectory of this global pandemic in Singapore and around the world.

Sustaining a path towards post-Covid-19 innovation

Much of 2020 was reactionary against Covid-19. Vaccines now offer us a route to sustained reduction of health impacts that ultimately chart us a path beyond the pandemic. Resurgent second and third waves in nations such as Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia that had previously performed well in suppressing the virus reveal the critical part vaccines play in steering beyond Covid-19. It could be argued that success in earlier waves may have led to complacency that undermined the urgency of vaccine rollouts in these countries.

The importance of vaccinations can be seen in Singapore’s roadmap, with faster vaccine rollout central to the strategy, and targeted outreach to vulnerable elderly groups. This vaccine acceleration is driven by guarantees of faster delivery from suppliers.

Ensuring equitable global vaccine distribution will be pivotal to a sustainable global solution and is central to discussions at the G7 summit. Covid-19 and its variants will never truly be eliminated — with vaccine hesitancy and healthcare access challenges — but a global commitment to vaccine provision is vital in mitigating the threat. It also paints a powerful picture of how innovations emerging during the pandemic could deliver a better world to follow.

These innovations did not appear in isolation but were built on existing or emerging technologies. What they have shown is how, with the right policies and resourcing, such ambitions can change the long-term trajectory of global health. These innovations also leveraged existing relationships to build robust public-private partnerships, allowing us to implement measures quickly and effectively, revealing how collaboration can drive forward positive societal and health impacts.

Radical transformations in the provision of healthcare during Covid-19 offer the potential for persistent positive change in a post-pandemic world. While we are rightly focused on massive funding to ensure appropriate and equitable global access to vaccines now, the infrastructure designed to deliver them could promise greater opportunities for the future — if effectively sustained.

The current trajectory indicates a significant oversupply of Covid-19 vaccines into next year, offering a chance to pivot manufacturing, cold chain, and administration capacity towards traditional interventions such as pneumococcal vaccine or therapies for HIV/malaria, alongside innovative new vaccines for cancer. Proof-of-concept for mRNA technologies — critical to several key vaccines — itself offers a path to remarkable innovation in treating indications from infectious diseases to cancer. Leveraging an enhanced supply chain with 3D and flexible manufacturing technologies could amplify this opportunity significantly.

The transition of testing capacity for Covid-19 is another encouraging area. Lee announced that at-home testing kits for Covid-19 will soon be sold at pharmacies as part of Singapore’s roadmap out of the pandemic. Now, imagine that testing innovation — alongside digital capabilities used to track Covid-19 — rolled out to diagnose and track symptoms of major conditions such as diabetes or hypertension.

Elements such as digital telehealth services saw renewed focus during the pandemic, unlocking wider access to healthcare. Leveraging non-traditional frontline healthcare workers to deliver an expanding range of services also offers significant potential, particularly in less-developed countries with reduced access to traditional healthcare.

Maintaining the spirit of clear communication and collaboration will be fundamental to delivering on this promise. Disaggregated communication that targets specific communities has been an invaluable part of tackling Covid-19, and one which should be maintained in future. That offers a pathway to better engage and treat conditions from mental health to maternal health.

A resilient future

It is clear from our experiences over the last 18 months that there is no balancing act which enables countries to successfully navigate a false trade-off between health and the economy. They are inseparable and intertwined. It is equally clear that vaccines form the foundation to a sustainable solution.

What we also wish to argue is the powerful opportunity we are now presented with — not just to build back to normal healthcare provision, but beyond it. The innovations adopted to tackle Covid-19 must be sustained and scaled to ensure a more resilient healthcare system going forward.

As a respected health hub and global scientific and education centre, Singapore can play a greater role in supporting technology and policy innovations in health equity and security, both regionally and globally. That promises a future in which we can not only improve everyday access and engagement with healthcare but position ourselves to better tackle future healthcare threats that may emerge.

Vincent Chin is managing director and senior partner and global leader for public sector at Boston Consulting Group (BCG), while Chan Harjivan is lead managing director and partner in the US public sector health practice at BCG