Contributing to infectious disease research over the past 18 years, Associate Professor Jenny Low leads the fight against COVID-19 with an important vaccine trial today.

Associate Professor Jenny Low plays an important role in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, leading trials in the Lunar-Cov19 vaccine developed by Duke-NUS Medical School and US pharmaceutical company Arcturus Therapeutics.

It is a culmination of her work in infectious diseases, a discipline she fell into largely by chance. When Prof Low had to choose her specialty in 2002, her preference — geriatrics — did not have an opening for a trainee at the time.

“This discipline has opened my eyes to the importance of public health, which I think is a very neglected branch of medicine in this day and age,” said Prof Low,Senior Consultant, Departmentof Infectious Diseases, SingaporeGeneral Hospital (SGH).

“Many people have the misconception that we no longer need to worry about infectious diseases because a lot of us live in first-world settings. We have forgotten that in a large part of the world, many people still die prematurely from infectious causes.”

When Prof Low joined the relatively new Infectious Diseases department, it had only two senior and three trainee staff. Since then, the department has tripled its staff strength, and is one of the top departments contributing to academic medicine research at SGH.

It was also by chance that Prof Low ended up managing Singapore’s first two COVID-19 cases during the Chinese New Year holiday in 2020. Because the disease had started emerging in China’s Wuhan province at the time, she did not take leave as she typically would during that period.

“We have dealt with similar situations before — we have had people admitted for suspected MERS, Ebola, H5N9. In the beginning, it was no different from how we would work in an isolation ward. It was upon diagnosing them with COVID-19 when all the frenzy started,” she recalled.

Coping with COVID-19

“The truth is, we have always thought about the potential of such a day. We have been preparing for a pandemic for many years while hoping that we would never have to witness it,” she said.

The Infectious Diseases department cared for patients in isolation at the peak of the outbreak. As the situation eased, Prof Low returned to her regular work, participating in COVID-19 research and running three trials — a corona antibody therapeutic trial, a drug trial, and the highly anticipated Lunar-Cov19 vaccine trials.

She designed the Lunar-Cov19 clinical trial protocol and led the SingHealth Investigational Medicine Unit to administer the phase 1 trial in August last year, and a month later, phase 2.

From the get-go, the team has been working against time. “A similar trial during peace time would normally take six to nine months for phase 1 and 2. But we were trying to shrink the timeline [by half]. With this compressed timeline, we have to do everything in parallel,” she said.

The team expects to move on to phase 3 by the first quarter of 2021. This last phase will involve testing thousands of volunteers from many countries over a few months to two years.

Each day is a juggling act for the mother-of-four. Prof Low said her passion keeps her going.

“Many of us have forgotten that there are still all these threats from infectious diseases. Many bacteria are also getting more resistant to antibiotics, and some of these infections, which previously can be easily treated, are now becoming very hard to treat,” she said.

“We are so urbanised that people do not realise that there is a boundary between fauna and humans. As we continue to encroach on the space that belongs to the wild, we will be exposed to pathogens that will result in novel diseases.”

It is Prof Low’s hope that the COVID-19 experience will create greater public awareness, and also encourage governments to rethink public health policies beyond COVID-19.

On a personal note, she looks forward to bonding with her family over activities such as hiking, birdwatching and enjoying the countryside in her favourite country, Japan, after the pandemic.