SINGAPORE: Singapore received its first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines on Monday (Dec 21) evening, making it the first country in Asia to take in the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.
The shipment was transported on flight SQ7979 via a Singapore Airlines (SIA) 747-400 freighter, which departed on Sunday from Brussels and landed at Singapore Changi Airport at 7.36pm on Monday.
The vaccines were received by Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung and were taken to SATS’ cold-chain facility for storage and ground transportation.
Speaking to reporters, Mr Ong talked about Singapore's intention to become a regional hub for the transportation of COVID-19 vaccines.
"We believe we have the capabilities to do so, to play a role to help supply and distribute to the region. I think there are two kinds of thoughts now in terms of vaccine delivery. Some countries of course would prefer direct delivery because they will think that is fast, point-to-point delivery," he said.
"(But) we can also play a role as a hub for distribution and transportation to the region. I don't think they're mutually exclusive ... I believe when things stabilise there will be demand for both. And we hope Singapore can play a positive, constructive role for the region," he added.
Mr Ong said local logistics firms have been trained to meet the standards set by the World Health Organization when it comes to handling the cargo "safely".
"In terms of capacity, we have quite a huge capacity, more than adequate to handle temperature-controlled cargo ... For example, next year, the estimated cargo movement for vaccines is about 65,000 tonnes worldwide. Last year alone, SATS handled 300,000 tonnes (of temperature-controlled cargo)," he said.
Mr Ong also talked about how the Changi Ready TaskForce had been looking at the possible challenges of transporting the vaccines.
"One example was when they got to know that the Pfizer vaccine requires minus 70 degrees Celsius storage, they started to look at dry ice production. Today SATS can produce four tonnes of dry ice every day (in its own facilities). So problem by problem, they've resolved. They did trial runs and today the first shipment arrived safely," he said.
READ: Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine approved by Singapore, first shipment expected by end-December
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced on Dec 14 that Singapore authorities had approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for pandemic use and that the first shipment would arrive by end-December. The vaccine shipment comes a week before Singapore is set to go into Phase 3 of its reopening on Dec 28.
Mr Lee said on Monday evening he was "delighted" to see the successful arrival of the first shipment, describing it as a "welcome 'present' that we've all been looking forward to".
In a Facebook post, he thanked the agencies and workers that made the shipment possible, and said the multi-ministry task force handling the COVID-19 outbreak in Singapore would announce details of the roll-out "in due course".
"It's been a long and arduous year. I hope that this news will give Singaporeans cheer this festive season, and reason to be optimistic for 2021," he said.
Singapore is one of the first few countries to approve and get COVID-19 vaccines. Others that have approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are Britain, the United States, Canada, Switzerland, Bahrain and Qatar. Britain, the US and Canada are already carrying out vaccination exercises.
Vaccinations in Singapore will be voluntary and priority will be given to those at greatest risk, such as frontline and healthcare workers, as well as the elderly and the vulnerable, Mr Lee had said.
Thereafter, an Expert Committee on COVID-19 Vaccination has proposed to progressively vaccinate the rest of the population and to cover everyone who wants a vaccination by the end of 2021. Vaccinations will be free for all Singaporeans as well as long-term residents currently in Singapore.
Mr Lee has said that he and his Cabinet colleagues will be getting themselves vaccinated early to show everyone that they believe the vaccines are safe. For the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, two doses are required, to be administered 21 days apart.
Singapore has also signed advance purchase agreements for other promising vaccine candidates, including those developed by Moderna and Sinovac.
The vaccine that arrived on Monday, developed by US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German firm BioNTech, has an efficacy rate of 95 per cent. However, pregnant women, people with compromised immune systems and those under the age of 16 should not receive the vaccine as the safety and efficacy data on these groups are not available yet.
In addition, the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) has said that people with a history of anaphylaxis or the rapid onset of severe allergic reactions should not receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine as a precautionary measure. This is similar to advisories issued in Britain and the US.
The safety profile of the vaccine is “generally consistent” with other registered vaccines, according to HSA. Some people may experience side effects such as pain, redness, swelling at the injection site, as well as fatigue, headache and muscle ache after vaccination.
While not everyone will experience these side effects, they are "common and expected" as part of the body’s natural response to build immunity against COVID-19, said HSA.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which uses mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid) technology, needs to be kept at minus 70 degrees Celsius, which presents some logistical challenges.
The new technology uses genetic material in the form of mRNA to teach our cells to make “spike proteins” that trigger an immune response. In contrast, traditional vaccines put a weakened or inactivated germ into our bodies.
The number of new COVID-19 cases in Singapore has declined significantly since reaching highs in April largely due to widespread transmission in the migrant worker community.
Ten new COVID-19 cases were reported in Singapore on Monday, nine of which were imported, according to the Ministry of Health’s daily update.
Mr Chin Yau Seng, SIA’s senior vice-president of cargo said: “The delivery of this first batch of COVID-19 vaccines to Singapore is an important milestone in the fight against COVID-19, and we are honoured to be able to play a part in this.
“It also served to demonstrate the Singapore readiness for the very important job of transporting and distributing COVID-19 vaccines internationally.”
SIA said it had conducted a successful shipment trial on Dec 19 on the same freighter flight route using thermal shippers, which are also known as cool boxes. The internal temperature of each box was actively tracked throughout the delivery.
DHL Global Forwarding arranged for the collection of the vaccines from the manufacturing site in Puurs, Belgium and will deliver the vaccines to an undisclosed location in Singapore. The logistics firm will also handle the return of the thermal shipper boxes that the vaccines came in to Europe.