How Singapore Got Early Access To Covid-19 Vaccines

Singapore signed NDAs with Covid-19 vaccine developers to access confidential data on the progress of candidate vaccines that was not yet available in published literature, without being tied to purchasing the vaccines.

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 23 — On December 21, Singapore was the first Asian nation to receive Pfizer-BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine.

The Straits Times reported that it took months of planning for Singapore to receive its first coronavirus vaccine shipment, ever since the first Covid-19 case arrived in the island republic 11 months ago.

The first step Singapore took was to identify all the potential treatments and vaccines for the novel coronavirus. In April, the island republic formed a therapeutics and vaccines expert panel, led by Professor Benjamin Seet, to advise the Singaporean government.

The panel comprised 18 clinicians and scientists from both the public and private sectors to look at potential medicines to treat Covid-19, as well as over 35 vaccine candidates. The Singaporean expert panel was particularly interested in RNA vaccines as these were easier to manufacture.

“And therefore, they could go into clinical trials earlier, and be made available globally in the large quantities needed,” Seet was quoted saying.

Pfizer-BioNTech’s shot is an mRNA vaccine that uses genetic material to instruct the body to make a harmless piece of the spike protein on the coronavirus, so that the immune system recognises the virus and produces antibodies against it.

The second step Singapore took was to further investigate candidate vaccines it was interested in. Seet said that in late April, Singapore formed another group to make “strategic bets” on some of the candidate vaccines recommended by the expert panel.

The objective of this planning group, chaired by Singapore’s head of civil service Leo Yip, was to procure and support the development of promising Covid-19 therapeutics, besides securing early access to coronavirus vaccines. They relied on assessments by the scientific panel.

Singapore managed to get early access to confidential data on the progress of various Covid-19 candidate vaccines — ahead of publication in scientific journals — by signing about 40 non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) with vaccine developers.

“This allows us to get access to data that is not available in the published literature — to get it early and to be able to find out more from the teams that actually developed the drugs,” Seet was quoted by The Straits Times as saying.

Singapore was not obliged to purchase vaccines from firms it signed the NDAs with.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced on December 14 that Singapore’s Health Sciences Authority had approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for pandemic use, and that the first shipments would arrive before year end. He estimated sufficient vaccines for everyone in Singapore by the third quarter of 2021.

The third step Singapore took was to negotiate vaccine procurement. The Singaporean government has set aside more than SG$1 billion (RM3.04 billion) to support the Covid-19 vaccine search by the city-state with a 5.69 million population.

Last September, Singapore joined the global COVAX Facility co-led by the World Health Organization (WHO). Singapore, together with Switzerland, also co-chaired a committee in support of the COVAX Covid-19 vaccine access plan.

The Straits Times reported that Singapore also supported local development efforts for Covid-19 treatments and vaccines, as well as companies to manufacture vaccines in Singapore in the long term.

The Singaporean government declined to reveal the price of the Covid-19 vaccines it purchased due to confidentiality reasons.

Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB) reportedly said despite Singapore’s small population, many pharmaceutical companies recognised the country’s status as a leading biomedical hub in Asia.

“So I think that position, plus the fact that many companies actually have a base in Singapore, put us on good footing to negotiate and work with them on vaccine access,” Goh Wan Yee, EDB senior vice-president and head for health care and wellness, was quoted saying.

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