SINGAPORE: The decision by German biotechnology firm BioNTech to choose Singapore as the site for its regional headquarters and a new mRNA manufacturing facility is a boost to the local biopharmaceutical ecosystem, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said on Monday (May 10).
Noting that the messenger RNA (mRNA) technology has “drastically reduced” the time needed for vaccines to be produced, the new facility will also strengthen the portfolio of different vaccine production technologies in Singapore, he said at an online press conference after the announcement was made earlier in the day.
“There will be new viruses that will emerge in time to come and what we need is a strong R&D (research and development) partnership to make sure that we continuously evolve our products in a timely fashion to serve our local and regional markets.”
The new mRNA technology, which is used by the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, contains instructions for the human cells to make proteins that mimic part of the novel coronavirus and spur the immune system into action.
BioNTech, in its press release, said it plans to open the Singapore office and begin construction of the new facility this year, subject to approval.
The facility, which will produce a range of novel mRNA vaccines and therapeutics for infectious diseases and cancer, is expected to be ready as early as 2023 and will create up to 80 jobs.
The minister stressed that the new investment must look at future needs too.
“I would like to emphasise that we’re not just talking about meeting the immediate needs. Our partnership needs to look at the future needs as well and this facility will indeed do that, which is to look beyond the current COVID-19 situation and to see how best we can meet the regional and global needs,” said Mr Chan.
“Even for COVID-19, we don't know how long this will last. But as soon as the facility comes on stream, we will be able to play a meaningful role for the rest of the region and the rest of the world.”
Co-founder and CEO of BioNTech Ugur Sahin told reporters that the company began discussions about investing in Singapore “more than a year ago”.
“This is the result of intensive due diligence and intensive interactions with local partners. We are convinced that Singapore is one of the best places to do that,” he added, citing a strong infrastructure, scientific ecosystem and talent pool for both manufacturing and R&D.
Asked about the total value of BioNTech’s investment in Singapore, the chief executive officer would only say it is “in the range of hundreds of millions of US dollars”.
He added that the company is exploring several options to make sure that the manufacturing facility here will be ready “as soon as possible”, such as acquiring an existing building or moving into established infrastructure. BioNTech is in talks with a number of potential partners on these options.
Depending on how fast it establishes its headquarters and the size of the manufacturing site, the company could require more than 80 workers for various tasks, such as production, quality control and assurance.
“This is the very first step,” said Dr Sahin.
NEW FACILITY WON’T HELP WITH CURRENT VACCINE NEEDS: CEO
That said, the upcoming manufacturing capacity in Singapore is unlikely to contribute to current vaccine needs.
“We have to be clear that starting now a manufacturing building in Singapore will not help us in the next 12 months with regard to the global supply (of COVID-19 vaccines),” said Dr Sahin.
“The global supply can only be addressed by increasing the existing production capacities. We did that and we will continue to do that in the next 12 months.”
The plan is, together with Pfizer, deliver up to three billion doses this year - 50 per cent more than what was initially announced, he added. Of the three billion doses, more than 40 per cent will be supplied to low- and middle-income countries.
BioNTech’s chief strategy officer Ryan Richardson said the company is looking at “a long-term investment” in Singapore.
“It extends beyond COVID-19 and as it was mentioned, our hope here is that we can establish both a regional and even potentially global supply for a range of different vaccines and therapies based in Singapore,” he said.
Having the site in Singapore will also mean that “a certain percentage (of vaccines manufactured here in future) would go to Singapore”, said Dr Sahin in response to a question.
Asked if the 2023 timeframe for the new facility takes into account existing labour shortages in the construction sector, Mr Chan said: “Notwithstanding the disruption in the global supply chain, be it in materials or labour, together with EDB (Economic Development Board), we are able to prioritise our work schedule and our labour sources in order to support BioNTech to make sure that these facilities come online as soon as possible.”