Singapore is seeing daily record Covid cases. Here’s why it may not be a bad thing

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People walk at a pedestrian crossing along the Orchard Road shopping district in Singapore on September 7, 2021.
Roslan Rahman | AFP | Getty Images

SINGAPORE — Authorities in Singapore have tightened Covid measures as infections in the country rise to fresh record highs — but two health experts told CNBC they are not terribly concerned.

The country’s health-care system and workers have been strained by the increase in cases, and there is a need to slow down transmission to avoid seeing more infections in vulnerable groups such as the elderly, the health ministry said Friday when stricter measures were announced again.

For the next four weeks, group sizes for social gatherings will be reduced to two people from five people, and working from home will be the default.

Still, medical experts told CNBC that the latest virus wave may not be a bad thing since Singapore’s population is highly-vaccinated.

Many of the patients with Covid-19 have avoided severe illness and will gain further protection against future infection as antibodies fight the virus, according to Teo Yik-Ying, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore.

Around 82% of Singapore’s population has received two doses of a Covid vaccine. Health authorities on Sunday said 98% of infected individuals had no or mild symptoms over the last 28 days.

Case numbers may remain high for a few months, but the “vast majority” will be well protected by the vaccines and won’t fall seriously ill, Teo said.

“For these people, infection will not have any short-term or long-term consequence to their health, but may additionally trigger a natural immune response which reduces the chance of subsequent infection,” he said in an email.

Potential benefits of natural infection

Letting the virus transmit slowly through the population is “not necessarily a bad thing,” said Ooi Eng Eong, a professor in Duke-NUS Medical School’s emerging infectious diseases program.

The two main vaccines used in Singapore are developed by PfizerBioNTech or Moderna, and both use the messenger RNA technology.

mRNA vaccines instruct the body to produce a so-called spike protein which is found on the surface of the virus that causes Covid-19. It is harmless, but triggers the immune system to develop antibodies so that the body will be able to fight off infection better if exposed to the real virus.

“If we get a natural infection, our immune system will be able to recognize a larger part of the virus” as opposed to just the spike protein, Ooi said, adding that it could make a person more resilient against future variants.

Instead of infection followed by vaccination, we’re going to go vaccination followed by infection, which I think is even better because infection will mostly be mild.
Ooi Eng Eong
Professor at Duke-NUS Medical School

He said Singapore could reap the benefits of natural infection that some parts of Europe and North America are experiencing, but in the reverse order.

“Instead of infection followed by vaccination, we’re going to go vaccination followed by infection, which I think is even better because [infections] will mostly be mild,” he said.

“Those [countries] that had high rates of disease last year paid the price” of higher death rates, he told CNBC.

More new variants?

When asked if widespread transmission of Covid could lead to new variants emerging, Ooi acknowledged that it’s difficult to predict what will happen.

However, he pointed out that future variants will have to compete with the “very transmissible” delta variant, the dominant strain worldwide.

“It’s very hard to beat delta,” he said.

There were also concerns about mu, a new variant of interest, but it couldn’t take off because delta was too strong, he said.

“Having said that, I think the wise thing to do is still to be prepared that something fitter than delta could eventually emerge, or that the new variant could escape the immunity produced by vaccination,” Ooi said.

Local Covid situation

The number of severe Covid cases remains within expectations, according to Singapore’s health ministry.

There were 172 cases that required oxygen supplementation, and 30 in the intensive care unit (ICU) as of Sunday. ICU capacity can be ramped up to 1,600 beds if needed, the government said.

The two professors who spoke to CNBC were split on the whether there’s a need for new restrictions.

Ooi said the current virus wave is “well within the limits” of Singapore’s capacity. The new restrictions are “unnecessary” and will slow down efforts to live with the disease, he added.

While Teo agreed that the situation wasn’t worsening, he said tightening measures are needed to provide “breathing space” for Singapore to make adjustments to operational and hospitalization protocols.

Hospital beds are filling up because of the country’s “very cautious” approach, and not because that many people need acute medical care, Teo said.

The long-term plan against Covid is a combination of vaccination and natural infection to provide protection while not overwhelming hospitals, he said, adding that he does not anticipate an increase in the death rate, but the absolute numbers can be expected to rise.

As of Sunday, Singapore reported 87,892 Covid cases and 78 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.

— CNBC’s Cory Stieg and Berkeley Lovelace Jr. contributed to this report.

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