6 heroes in the fight to end the Covid-19 pandemic named The Straits Times Asians of the Year, Asia News & Top Stories

Six people who have tirelessly searched for a way out of the greatest crisis of our time in 2020 have been named The Straits Times Asians of the Year.

Together, the recipients of the 2020 award will capture the entire trajectory of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

They are Chinese researcher Zhang Yongzhen, who led the team that mapped and published online the first complete genome of Sars-CoV-2, the virus that caused the pandemic; three scientists – the Chinese Major General Chen Wei, the Japanese Dr. Ryuichi Morishita and Singapore’s professor Ooi Eng Eong – who are at the forefront of vaccine development against the virus; and two businessmen – Mr. Seo Jung-jin from South Korea and Mr. Adar Poonawalla from India – whose companies will make and distribute the vaccines and other Covid-19 treatments to the world.

Collectively referred to as “the virus breakers”, they are heroes of a kind, dedicated to the urgent cause of resolving the coronavirus pandemic, each in their own capacity.

“Sars-CoV-2, the virus that has killed and deprived the world’s largest and most populous continent, meets its tamer in The Virus Busters,” the award said. “We salute your courage, care, dedication and creativity. In this perilous hour, you are a symbol of hope for Asia, and even for the world.”

In deciding to honor The Virus Busters, ST editors had in mind those who have somehow enabled the complex, multi-stage process of preventing as many people around the world from getting the deadly disease in the shortest possible time. get time. .

Mr. Warren Fernandez, Editor-in-Chief of Singapore Press Holdings’ English / Malay / Tamil Media Group and Editor of ST, said, “Every year, ST editors look for a person, team or organization that hasn’t just created or shaped the news.” but also positively contributed to Asia in the process.

“This year, of course, we looked at those involved in the fight against Covid-19, which dominated the headlines. We debated long and hard, but finally came to an agreement on a group of people who did the most to help a to find an answer to the crisis caused by the virus.

They are a disparate group whose concerted efforts have advanced the search for vaccines, allowing them to be discovered and delivered with an urgency never tried or seen before. Their commitment and actions have helped save lives and give hope. to people all over Asia, and the world. “

Working towards an end to pandemic

Professor Zhang Yongzhen, 55, of the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center in China helped kick-start the process of ending the pandemic.

He and his team toiled through two consecutive nights in early January – after receiving their first sample of the mysterious disease and then ravaging the city of Wuhan in central Hubei province – to map the virus’s first complete genome.

With the identification of the pathogen came the realization of the enormity of the situation.

Prof. Zhang’s team quickly shared their findings with the authorities and posted the information online to warn the global scientific community of the dangerous virus that is about to take over the world.

It would have taken extraordinary guts to do so, as some whistleblower doctors who had previously tried to sound the alarm about the disease had been detained at the time. The timely transparency of Prof. Zhang and his team proved vital in the rapid development of test kits and early research into treatments and vaccines for the disease.

Down in Wuhan, 54-year-old Chen Wei, the Chinese Army’s top epidemiologist, was trying to develop a viable vaccine to end the outbreak she could have foreseen around the world.

In just 50 days, she and her team had produced a potential vaccine with the Chinese company CanSino Biologics, ready for clinical trials. It became the world’s first limited-use vaccine.

While Major General Chen’s vaccine used a proven method of using a cold virus to transfer genetic data from the coronavirus protein to elicit an immune response, other researchers are making a trail by experimenting with new technologies to develop their own. vaccines.

In Japan, Dr. Ryuichi Morishita, 58, professor of clinical gene therapy at Osaka University, is working with home-grown biotech start-up AnGes on a DNA vaccine, while Singapore’s Professor Ooi Eng Eong, 53, is leading scientists at the Duke -NUS Medical School and the US pharmaceutical company Arcturus Therapeutics to develop a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine.

The DNA and mRNA vaccines differ from traditional vaccines in that, instead of injecting some form of virus into the body, they use only a small portion of the genetic data from the coronavirus to stimulate cells to make a protein that contains antibodies. against the virus. .

If the DNA and mRNA-Covid-19 vaccines pass clinical trials and are approved for use in humans, they will be among the very first of their kind.

The first mRNA vaccine, an American-German collaboration between drug manufacturers Pfizer and BioNTech, was only approved for mass production on Wednesday.

These new technologies can be developed quickly and can yield vaccines that are cheaper to produce.

The Asian efforts are only part of a wider global partnership. Developers in the United States and Europe have also worked at lightning speed to reduce the typical years it takes to make a vaccine to just a few months.

There are also promising vaccine candidates from Russia and China, although they have been less transparent in releasing clinical trial results.

Scientists and researchers are not the only ones to play a role.

Nations are now gearing up for mass production and distribution of these long-awaited vaccines, and many in Asia have moved to make them free for their people. Among those who made the process possible are two key Asian businessmen whose contributions have helped us bring us closer to the end goal each day: getting billions of doses of vaccines and treatments available to people around the world.

Mr. Seo Jung-jin, president of one of South Korea’s largest pharmaceutical companies, Celltrion, and the second richest man in the country, is investing 300 billion won (S $ 368 million) in the production of an antibody treatment that will complement the Covid-19 vaccines. Celltrion is also South Korea’s largest distributor of biologics worldwide.

With a view to offering an affordable treatment, Mr. Seo, 63, has vowed to provide Celltrion’s Covid-19 drug – which will seek conditional approval by the end of this month – at a manufacturing cost in South Korea and at a lower cost. prices than competitors from the rest of the world.

“During a pandemic crisis, pharmaceutical companies must serve as government resources for the country,” said Mr. Seo.

Mr. Adar Poonawalla – billionaire CEO of India’s Serum Institute, the world’s largest vaccine producer, has invested US $ 250 million (S $ 333 million) of his family fortune in increasing the manufacturing capacity of his company.

“I have decided to pull out all the stops,” said 39-year-old Poonawalla, who has pledged that his company’s Covid-19 vaccines will help supply low- and middle-income countries that face significant disadvantages in the search. to these vaccines.

Serum Institute is also developing its own vaccine.

In the big picture of ending the pandemic, a common goal is essential. The ST Asians of the Year have led the way, as have many other individuals in their own fields. When an end comes in sight, it will be thanks in no small part to these people who – undaunted by the turmoil – have committed themselves to the sobering, much-needed work of crafting a plan for humanity out of crisis .

Ms. Bhagyashree Garekar, ST’s foreign editor: “There hasn’t been a day this year when the pandemic wasn’t in the news. the biggest-ever in Asia.Health Challenge, in pioneering and courageous efforts to stop the highly contagious virus from doing more damage.

“In a year ending with a desire for major resets … the virus breakers in Asia are the face of hope on the horizon.”

Previous recipients of The Straits Times Asian of the Year award


The President of Myanmar, Thein Sein


Chinese President Xi Jinping and then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi


Founding Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew (awarded posthumously)


“The Disruptors”: Grab co-founders Anthony Tan and Tan Hooi Ling, Flipkart co-founders Binny Bansal and Sachin Bansal, Gojek founder and CEO Nadiem Makarim, Tencent Holdings founder Pony Ma and Razer co-founder Tan Min-Liang


Chinese President Xi Jinping


The First Responders: Singaporean paraglider Ng Kok Choong (awarded posthumously), Indian Navy helicopter pilots P. Rajkumar and Vijay Varma, spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho of Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency, Mercy Relief in Singapore and Jakarta-based Asean Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Disaster Management Assistance


Indonesian President Joko Widodo

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