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Singapore gets shot in the arm from global drug demand

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Biochemists checking a bio-reactor used for manufacturing medical products at Takeda Pharmaceuticals (Asia Pacific) in Singapore. The city-state is on course for its worst-ever recession this year but factory activity has held up, thanks partly to countries rushing to stockpile medicines during the pandemic. AFP

AFP – Scientists in protective clothing working in a high-tech laboratory at a pharmaceutical plant in Singapore, where the Coronavirus-hit the economy hard have received a shot in the arm from robust global drug demand.

The city-state is on course for its worst-ever recession this year but factory activity has held up, thanks partly to countries rushing to stockpile medicines during the pandemic.

The nation, just half the size of Los Angeles, has become a centre for drug makers.

It is home to more than 50 factories, owned by players including Pfizer, Roche, GlaxoSmithKline and Takeda.

Singapore’s drug sector “plays an important role in the global pharmaceutical industry supply chain”, Rajiv Biswas, Asia Pacific chief economist at consultancy IHS Markit, said.

And in 2020, “governments and private-sector firms have had to build up inventories of critical drugs as a result of severe supply chain disruptions in many countries during the pandemic”, he added.

Data highlights the benefits for the trading hub – biomedical manufacturing, which covers pharmaceuticals, has grown strongly, with output expanding 90 percent on-year in September alone.

Exports defied expectations of a collapse and posted growth most of the year, helped by drug shipments, despite slipping in October and November.

While attention has focused on vaccine development, strong demand for medicines to treat illnesses ranging from asthma to epilepsy has underpinned the good fortune of pharmaceutical giants in the city, industry players and analysts say.

It is a needed boost after Singapore’s economy shrank more than 13 percent in the second quarter when the country introduced tough virus curbs.

With borders largely closed, the key tourism sector has been hard-hit with arrivals falling to just 13,400 in October from 1.7 million in January.

Singapore’s outbreak has been relatively mild, with the city-state recording around 58,000 cases and 29 deaths, as the economy began recovering in July-September as restrictions eased.

The city had long been a major exporter of electronics, from microchips to computer hard disks, but has sought to diversify its manufacturing sector.

The biomedical industry – which also covers making high-tech medical devices such as heart pacemakers– now employs more than 24,000 people and accounts for about 20 percent of the manufacturing sector, according to risk consultancy Fitch Solutions.

Singapore, with a population of 5.7 million, is one of the few countries that exports more pharmaceuticals than it imports – in 2019 it shipped pharma products worth $8.1 billion while importing $3.1 billion-worth, according to Fitch.

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