Tuesday, 2 Jun 2020

Key biotech players in Singapore join hands to beef up Covid-19 test capacity

Major players in Singapore’s biotechnology industry are coming together to ensure that the nation is self-sufficient as it ramps up testing efforts amid the easing of circuit breaker measures.

The Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) has been working with local small and medium-sized enterprises, academic institutions and Singapore investment company Temasek to build up local manufacturing capabilities for Covid-19 test supplies, and develop alternatives to overseas imports.

This is to hedge against supply chain disruptions due to lockdowns and flight disruptions that could affect testing capacity, a problem some local diagnostic kit firms have been grappling with during the pandemic.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has put strains on the supply chains for key supplies for Covid-19 testing, including raw materials of diagnostic kits and surgical masks, for example,” said an A*Star spokesman.

Normally, global demand for such supplies is met by mainstream commercial manufacturing, much of which is done overseas.

“However, the current pandemic has increased global demand so rapidly that commercial manufacturing is unable to keep up. This is further exacerbated by the lockdowns implemented in many countries,” he explained.

To make sure that testing goes on at full throttle here, industry players are ramping up local production of swabs, viral transport mediums (the chemicals needed to transport samples to the lab) and nucleic acid extraction kits (used to extract the genetic material of the virus for analysis), which are all critical in the testing process.

They are also looking into locally synthesising the raw materials that are needed to produce diagnostic test kits such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) enzymes – responsible for cloning and multiplying the genetic material of the virus.

Scaling up of testing capabilities is vital for Singapore as it looks towards easing restrictions from June 2.

Until effective treatments and, ultimately, a vaccine are found to protect people against the virus, constant testing is critical in ensuring that those such as essential workers and vulnerable groups are not infected.

The Republic had a testing capacity of around 8,000 tests daily at the start of this month, and plans to scale this up to about 40,000 as quickly as possible.

Home-grown company Esco Aster, an independent contract development and manufacturing organisation of the Esco Lifesciences Group of companies, is set to be among the first local firms to produce raw materials for PCR test kits, which detect the presence of viral genetic material in patient samples, showing that someone is currently infected.

Esco Aster’s factory in Changi, which is currently used for small-scale drug product filling – such as the putting of drugs into vials – will be expanded in phases from 100 sq m to 550 sq m to accommodate the machines required to make the raw materials. These include the oligo synthesiser, a machine which makes primers and probes, which are specific sequences of genetic material.

The site will be fully operational by the end of the year and will be able to produce raw materials for at least 1.2 million PCR test kits per week, scaling up production if necessary, it said.

“Having our own domestic capabilities will make us less reliant on international players, who will likely have to serve their own domestic market first,” Esco Aster’s chief executive Lin Xiangliang told The Straits Times.

“The Changi site is not a big factory, but will meet international standards. It is more of a form of self-sufficiency to give us flexibility and buffer against sudden supply shocks.”

Building resilience in the supply chain is paramount during a pandemic, when global demand increases rapidly to the point that commercial manufacturing is unable to keep up.

“During non-pandemic periods, the same facility will also be used for our work such as diagnostics for cancer, other viruses which may have mutated and tropical diseases like dengue,” added Mr Lin.

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