Strong global demand for medicines has helped boost Singapore’s economy, which, hit hard by the coronavirus epidemic, is experiencing the worst recession in its history.
With more than fifty factories established, the city-state of Southeast Asia has become a center for the pharmacy giants, among which the American Pfizer, the Swiss Roche, the British GlaxoSmithKline and the Japanese Takeda.
Singapore “plays an important role in the supply chain of the global pharmaceutical industry,” analyst Rajiv Biswas of IHS Markit told AFP.
In 2020, “governments and private sector companies built up stocks of essential medicines due to the severe disruption of supply chains in many countries during the pandemic,” he explains.
The data underline the strong growth recorded by this hub: the manufacture of products for the biomedical sector, which includes drugs, saw its production in September increase by 90% year on year.
Exports even exceeded expectations for a good part of the year, boosted by drug shipments. However, they fell in October and November.
If the development of vaccines has been the center of attention, the strong demand for drugs to treat diseases as diverse as asthma or epilepsy has made it possible to support the major Singaporean pharmaceutical companies, according to industry players and analysts.
A more than welcome boost, the country’s economy having contracted by more than 13% in the second quarter with the adoption of measures to curb the Covid-19 epidemic.
With the closing of the borders, the tourism sector has been particularly affected. The number of arrivals fell from 1.7 million visitors in January to just 13,400 in October.
Singapore, which has successfully brought the spread of the virus under control with a rigorous testing and tracing policy, has a total of 58,000 infections and 29 deaths from the coronavirus.
The city, which has long been a major exporter of electronics, microprocessors and hard drives, has sought to diversify its manufacturing sector.
Cutting-edge research encouraged
The biomedical field, which also covers the manufacture of medical devices such as pacemakers, now employs more than 24,000 people and represents about 20% of the manufacturing sector, according to research firm Fitch Solutions.
With 5.7 million inhabitants, Singapore is one of the few countries in the world to export more pharmaceutical products than it imports. In 2019, it shipped 66 billion euros and imported 25 billion, according to Fitch.
The authorities have encouraged cutting-edge research to stimulate the economy, pledging to invest nearly € 16.3 billion in research and innovation over the next five years.
In Takeda’s huge complex, cells from hamster ovaries are cultivated to make a medicine to treat hemophilia before being sent to Switzerland, Vienna or California where they are mixed with other ingredients. .
Packaged in Belgium, the product is then shipped worldwide.
“Overall, the pharmaceutical industry in Singapore has not been affected by the pandemic,” said George Lam, who runs the company’s Singapore site.
“Because we are not affected, we continue to manufacture, we continue to export our drugs … A number of pharmaceutical companies in Singapore manufacture drugs that save lives.”
The functioning of his company was however somewhat disrupted by the coronavirus. Employees were stranded in neighboring Malaysia after the borders were closed, but the site continued to operate.
The drugs sector is one of the few in the city-state to do well as executives worry about growth prospects.
“We expect that next year the recovery will be gradual and uneven due to recurring waves of infections in other countries and uncertainties related to the pace of vaccine production, distribution and immunization campaigns,” said the Minister of Commerce, Chan Chun Sing.
But for him, unfortunately, “we will not return to the world before the crisis”.