Pharma giant Sanofi breaks ground on $638m vaccine facility in S'pore

(From left) DPM Heng Swee Keat, Sanofi's executive vice-president for vaccines Thomas Triomphe, EDB chairman Beh Swan Gin and Sanofi's evolutive facility site head Koh Liang Hong viewing examples of single-use technologies that will be used in production at the Sanofi evolutive vaccine facility on April 20, 2022. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG
Mr Thomas Triomphe (left) and Mr Heng Swee Keat at Sanofi's evolutive vaccine facility, which will not just make vaccines but also tap new technologies, such as those for manufacturing enzymes. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG
Mr Thomas Triomphe (left) and Mr Heng Swee Keat looking at a miniature version of the production floor made with Lego blocks. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi broke ground on Wednesday (April 20) on its state-of-the-art vaccine facility in Singapore, which will allow it to quickly pivot to making new vaccines that might be needed to combat future pandemics.

Sanofi is investing €900 million (S$1.3 billion) over five years to create two such facilities globally - one in France and the $638 million production site in Tuas here.

Sanofi, which makes prescription medications, paediatric vaccines, and vaccines for diseases such as influenza, polio and yellow fever, is among the major global players that have announced in recent years plans to conduct vaccine-related activities in Singapore.

German firm BioNTech and Hilleman Laboratories will set up manufacturing facilities while Thermo Fisher Scientific will set up a facility to fill vials with vaccine and finish the process of packaging the medicine.

These will enable Singapore as well as the region to respond swiftly to future pandemics.

Sanofi said its evolutive vaccine facility (EVF) is the first of its kind. The fully digitalised facility can produce up to four different types of vaccines at one go, unlike current facilities around the world that can make just one at a time.

Targeted for completion at the end of 2025, it will churn out vaccines to be used in Asia.

It is Sanofi's biggest industrial investment. The production site will not just make vaccines but also tap new technologies, such as those for manufacturing enzymes, Sanofi's executive vice-president for vaccines Thomas Triomphe told The Straits Times on Tuesday.

"We know that Covid-19 is not going to be here forever. So with these evolutive facilities, we are already planting the seeds and preparing for the next pandemic, and this is the level of agility that you need."

The set-up will allow the company to quickly switch to a new vaccine in the event of a pandemic, as opposed to having to build a new facility.

The idea dates back to as early as 2015, but it was the coronavirus pandemic that accelerated the process of making it happen, said Mr Triomphe.

"Singapore is not just an economic hub but also a technology and innovation hub," he said. "To proceed with massive investments like the EVF, you need to have a whole ecosystem of suppliers of raw materials, of starters, of innovation technologies in the same area."

Located at Tuas Biomedical Park, the Sanofi facility is expected to create up to 200 skilled jobs for the local workforce.

"Covid-19 has reinforced the importance of pandemic preparedness and supply chain resilience. We must not take our foot off the pedal when the pandemic fades," said Mr Heng Swee Keat, Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies, at the groundbreaking ceremony.

"Therefore, vaccine production in Singapore will enhance the region's position for dealing with future pandemics and the ensuing economic shocks."

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While vaccine manufacturing is not new to Singapore, there was just one vaccine plant, set up by GlaxoSmithKline, here before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Since 2011, it has been manufacturing pneumococcal and Haemophilus influenzae antigens for GlaxoSmithKline's childhood bacterial vaccines.

"There was also limited investment in vaccine research," Associate Professor Hsu Li Yang, an infectious diseases expert at the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said in an e-mail interview.

"The Covid-19 pandemic appears to have changed the thinking of our policymakers, with the announcement of several companies building vaccine manufacturing plants in Singapore," added Prof Hsu.

He noted that there was also a lot more funding for vaccine research, with the Government's Programme for Research in Epidemic Preparedness And Response announced in late 2020 to prepare for "Disease X" as the most obvious example.

Singapore is on the whole committing $25 billion to research, innovation and enterprise over five years till 2025. 

"Sustained investment in this area may help guard against future pandemics in the sense that we may have a relative advantage in both vaccine development and supply," said Prof Hsu.

(From left) Sanofi's head of Asia zone for vaccines Eric Mansion, executive vice-president for vaccines Thomas Triomphe, DPM Heng Swee Keat, Ambassador of France to Singapore Marc Abensour and Sanofi's evolutive facility site head Koh Liang Hong at the groundbreaking ceremony. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

This is "as opposed to the recent experience, where Singapore had to compete globally and probably at great expense for early access to and a continuous supply of Covid-19 vaccines", he added.

Dr Beh Swan Gin, chairman of the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB), said at the groundbreaking ceremony: "Sanofi's decision to locate one of its two EVFs in Singapore will strengthen the country's biopharmaceutical industry and, more broadly, its manufacturing sector.

"It is testament to Singapore's capabilities in advanced manufacturing and the biomedical sciences.

"Critically, the EVF in Singapore will also play a key role in ensuring future pandemic preparedness in Singapore and the region."

The facility is designed around a central unit that comprises several fully digitalised modules, which can produce up to four vaccines simultaneously, regardless of the vaccine technology used, for example protein- or mRNA-based ones.

The EVF will be able to quickly "switch" to one vaccine process to boost supply levels and adapt to public health emergencies.

Singapore's biopharma industry has been experiencing rapid growth, further accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Manufacturing output tripled in the last two decades and is now at more than $18 billion a year, Mr Heng said.

Separately, Sanofi, which has said it is seeking regulatory authorisation for its Covid-19 vaccine in the United States and European Union, is also doing so in Singapore, said Mr Triomphe.

It has teamed up with GlaxoSmithKline to produce a protein-based Covid-19 vaccine, which late-stage and booster trials have shown to be very effective in protecting against severe disease and death.

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