From 0 to 5 vaccine plants in S’pore: Pharmaceutical firms see need to diversify

The sudden influx of investments can largely be attributed to lessons learnt during the pandemic.

Salma Khalik

Salma Khalik

The Straits Times


MSD's latest expansion in Tuas will enable it to produce more innovative medicines and vaccines to meet the region’s needs. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

December 28, 2022

SINGAPORE – Prior to Covid-19, Singapore did not have a single facility producing finished vaccines. Over the past two years, however, five pharmaceutical companies have committed to set up plants here, which will, at steady state, churn out over a billion doses annually.

The products range from traditional types such as live-attenuated and recombinant vaccines to the latest mRNA ones, with the first output set to be rolled out as early as 2023.

The sudden influx of investments can largely be attributed to lessons learnt during the pandemic. Pharmaceutical firms discovered that when there is a critical need for vaccines, there is no such thing as business as normal. Several countries even blocked exports until domestic demand was met.

Not surprisingly, the companies looked to expand globally, seeking greater flexibility when the next pandemic hits.

BioNTech, one of the companies setting up a vaccine plant here, said this will provide a “rapid response production capability for South-east Asia to address potential pandemic threats”.

The pandemic also focused attention on the benefits of vaccination, so demand for all vaccines is expected to be high in coming years.

Professor Benjamin Seet, a deputy group chief executive at the National Healthcare Group who led Singapore’s efforts to secure Covid-19 vaccines, said the nation’s small population is an advantage as “our domestic needs are readily met and manufacturing capacity (can be) quickly directed to address regional demands and beyond”.

There is no risk that the Republic will block the export of vaccines in a pandemic.

The Economic Development Board (EDB), too, was scouting for companies that were willing to develop and manufacture vaccines here, since this could make it easier for Singapore to acquire vaccines in a pandemic.

Its efforts have paid off. Between October 2020 and October 2022, five pharmaceutical firms committed to making vaccines here.

Ms Goh Wan Yee, EDB’s senior vice-president in charge of healthcare, said: “The decision by several leading global pharmaceutical companies to locate their vaccine manufacturing facilities in Singapore is in line with our efforts to anchor more such activities here, to strengthen our pandemic resilience.”

She added that the new facilities will “enhance our access to and cooperation with the producers of vaccines and therapeutics. In the event of future pandemics, these efforts will stand us in good stead to acquire vaccines for national needs while also supplying countries in the region.”

Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong told The Straits Times: “The past two years have seen us welcome significant investments from pharmaceutical players, which now include the manufacturing of vaccines.

“This is a good development for Singapore and will further strengthen our healthcare ecosystem and enhance the pandemic resilience of Singapore and the region by providing faster access to vaccines and therapeutics.

“Coupled with continued efforts to build up our capabilities and talent pipeline in this space, these investments will enable us to enhance our position as a leading pharmaceutical hub in Asia and help us better deal with future pandemics.”

Here are the companies that have or will set up vaccine plants, in order of announcement date:

Thermo Fisher Scientific (Oct 14, 2020)
The American firm will be doing contract manufacturing of fill and finish for any type of vaccine, including the mRNA ones, with clients providing the active ingredients.

It has built Singapore’s first large-scale high-speed sterile line for live virus vaccines in Joo Koon. Once operational in 2023, it will have the capacity to produce up to 30 million vaccine doses a month.

Sanofi (April 12, 2021)
The French giant, which is among the top 10 pharmaceutical firms in the world with sales of US$39 billion (S$53 billion) in 2021, will build a digitally enabled plant that can produce three to four different vaccines simultaneously.

Located at the Tuas Biomedical Park, the $638 million evolutive vaccine facility (EVF) will have the flexibility to make different types of vaccines on a large scale. This is one of two EVFs Sanofi is building, with the other in France.

“The EVF will also be able to quickly switch its configuration towards one vaccine process to boost supply levels and adapt quickly to evolving public health emergencies, such as during a pandemic,” the company said.

BioNTech (May 10, 2021)
The German company, which shot to prominence when it joined Pfizer in producing the world’s first Covid-19 vaccine, has taken over Novartis’ plant at the Tuas Biomedical Park, which it is converting into a fully integrated mRNA manufacturing facility.

It expects to start producing a range of novel mRNA vaccines and drugs for infectious diseases and cancer from 2023. The highly automated plant will have the capacity to churn out several hundred million doses of mRNA-based vaccines each year. These may include its Covid-19 vaccine.

Its chief executive officer, Dr Ugur Sahin, said opening a plant here is an “important strategic step in building out our global footprint and capabilities” and expanding its ability to deliver its vaccines and therapies around the world.

Hilleman Laboratories (Dec 6, 2021)
The company, a joint venture set up in India in 2009 by pharmaceutical company MSD and charitable foundation Wellcome Trust, is setting up facilities for research and development as well as production of vaccines and biologics at the Biopolis.

Its chief executive officer here, Dr Raman Rao, said: “Singapore is an important base for Hilleman Laboratories to expand in the region and beyond, as we ramp up efforts to develop timely, novel and affordable vaccines and biologics for infectious diseases.”

He added that the company will lend “our expertise in vaccines and biologics to build local capabilities to address urgent public health challenges caused by vaccine-preventable diseases, some of which have pandemic potential.”

MSD or Merck & Co (Oct 5, 2022)
MSD, which came to Singapore in 1994, said its latest expansion within its 29ha multi-product manufacturing hub in Tuas will enable it to produce more innovative medicines and vaccines to meet the region’s needs.

The American company, which was set up in 1891 and is the world’s oldest still active pharmaceutical firm, is among the top 10 globally with a revenue of US$48.7 billion in 2021. It plans to produce its cervical cancer vaccine at the new plant.

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