Coronavirus pandemic

Temasek arm joined battle with $800m war chest

The first 950 beds at the Singapore Expo were set up within three days to start taking in recovering patients - even as the capacity was ramped up to its current 8,000 beds.
The first 950 beds at the Singapore Expo were set up within three days to start taking in recovering patients - even as the capacity was ramped up to its current 8,000 beds.PHOTO: MOH

Singapore investment company Temasek's social and charity arm, Temasek Foundation, has committed $800 million to fighting Covid-19.

And if that is not enough, the parent company, worth more than $300 billion, is willing to pump in even more.

So far, about half of the $800 million has already been spent. Of this, $250 million has been directed to Covid-related therapeutics, and vaccines research and development.

Dr Fidah Alsagoff, senior managing director at Temasek International, the management and investment arm of Temasek, said the priority is not the amount of money pledged but what is needed to boost Singapore's fight against the global pandemic.

He told The Straits Times: "We may end up spending less or we may end up spending more. What's more important is the thinking behind it."

And that is to see what is necessary to deal with Covid-19 and whether there are gaps that Temasek, with its wide network of companies and associates both local and overseas, can help plug.

Dr Alsagoff said not all help entails funding. Sometimes it is a matter of making an introduction, since the Temasek family of companies has contacts around the world.

It was a time for "all hands on deck" he said, adding that the call to action had to come ahead of any surge in demand, as "yesterday cannot be the basis for tomorrow", as the pandemic spread is exponential.

Mr Abel Ang, group chief executive of Advanced MedTech, said his company responded to Temasek's "battle cry" to all its employees and companies to help beat Covid-19.

The medical technology company, wholly owned by Temasek, embarked on looking for a ventilator to manufacture here, months ago, in anticipation of a global shortage should the pandemic worsen.

Patients who need to be put on this life-saving device range from about 5 per cent to 10 per cent of those infected, often depending on their age and other medical conditions they may already have.

FOCUSED ON NEEDS, NOT MONEY

We may end up spending less or we may end up spending more. What's more important is the thinking behind it.

DR FIDAH ALSAGOFF, senior managing director at Temasek International, on how it has gone about helping to fight the virus.

GOING ALL OUT

We pretty much exhausted all the local supply we could find in the first few weeks.

MR KHOO EE PING, chief corporate development officer at Sheares Healthcare, on sourcing for items such as beds and mattresses to convert the 10 halls at the Singapore Expo to house Covid-19 patients.

Patients have died in hospitals where there were not enough ventilators to help them breathe.

Dr Alsagoff said the team tried to plan ahead - anticipating needs before they became urgent.

GOING UPSTREAM

In January and February, the biggest need was for masks for healthcare workers, sanitisers for the population and test kits to identify those infected.

Sanitisers were the easiest as there were local companies producing them. So Temasek "gave them certainty of orders so they could scale up production", said Dr Alsagoff.

With ample supply, the price of sanitisers did not shoot up here as it did in some other countries.

But N95 masks for healthcare workers were a different matter. It was almost impossible to bring in masks from overseas, so a decision was made to manufacture high-quality medical-grade masks here.

Temasek worked with Innosparks, an ST Engineering subsidiary, to bring some mask production lines to Singapore. But there was a global shortage of some critical raw materials like melt-blown polypropylene which is necessary for the filtration layer.

So it needed to go upstream to secure the raw materials in order to produce - since they could not buy - melt-blown polypropylene here.

There was the same problem with test kits for Covid-19, given the frantic rush for such supplies by countries around the world.

A major global supplier of nasopharyngeal swab sticks is based in Lombardy, the region hardest hit in Italy, which needed the supplies for its own use.

Again, the decision was to make the swab sticks here, but setting up injection moulding facilities - which is the cheapest way to make them - takes time. So, they turned to 3D printing which was fast, but expensive, to supply the kits used in the initial months.

Apart from the swab sticks, test kits also require tubes to place the sticks in and the liquid reagent. Again, with the global shortage, the decision was to go upstream for the raw material to produce them here.

All these efforts required linking up academia and research institutes with potential small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and providing the seed money to kick-start and ramp up production.

Said Dr Alsagoff: "In cases of SMEs willing to commit to production, we were able to place a commitment to buy, giving them the capital to be able to scale up their production volume quickly into the millions, and de-risk the production and supply."

The full diagnostic kit - swab sticks, transport media and tubes - is now in commercial production here, a capability that did not exist locally in the past.

With a guaranteed supply of test kits, Singapore was able to increase the number of Covid-19 tests it does every day, with a target of up to 40,000 tests a day by this month.

Aside from that, Temasek has so far given out more than one million litres of hand sanitiser, 12.6 million masks, 580,000 face shields and 180,000 oximeters which are used to test oxygen supply in the body.

The majority was for people here, such as distribution of sanitisers and masks to households and to students returning to school. More than 100,000 face shields were given to front-line food and beverage staff, chefs and food preparers.

It has also provided such supplies to 24 other countries, including Italy, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and New Zealand.

ACCOMMODATION FOR PATIENTS

In March and April, the focus changed with the explosion of cases in foreign worker dormitories.

Hundreds of new patients were diagnosed every day, putting a heavy strain on the healthcare system. Fortunately, most of the workers were young and generally healthy and suffered only mild illness.

Nevertheless, they still needed to be isolated until they recovered, to prevent them from passing the infection on to others.

"In March, we started thinking: what if there was a big surge? We absolutely have to keep intensive care units free and hospitals unclogged," said Dr Alsagoff, who had previously held the post of chief executive officer of MOH Holdings.

Temasek worked with the Government and rallied its network of companies such as PSA International, Surbana Jurong which does large-scale projects and specialises in spatial planning, private security firm Certis and Sheares Healthcare to help rapidly build and manage new care and recovery facilities.

He said the Singapore Expo, with its large halls, was quickly identified as a suitable site to house patients who no longer needed much care, as well as those with mild symptoms who did not need to be hospitalised.

They were able to set up the first 950 beds within three days and start taking in recovering patients - even as they ramped up capacity to its current 8,000 beds. All work was completed within four weeks.

Mr Khoo Ee Ping, chief corporate development officer at Sheares Healthcare, which operates primarily outside of Singapore, said it was a challenge converting the 10 halls at the Singapore Expo to house Covid-19 patients.

It was not just a simple matter of putting in walls to build individual wards. They also had to source for thousands of beds and mattresses, linen, pillows and other items.

"We pretty much exhausted all the local supply we could find in the first few weeks," said Mr Khoo.

Sheares Healthcare's sister companies under Temasek helped to source for more in the region and these were quickly shipped in.

This was their shopping list:

• Beds - 8,100

• Mattresses - 8,100

• Pillows - 8,100

• Blankets - 8,100

• Bath towels - 8,100

• Chairs - 8,100

• Bed sheets - 24,000

• Pillow cases - 24,000

At the start, the Expo was used to house patients who had recovered but may still have been infectious. But within weeks, with the huge number of new cases from the foreign worker dormitories, they started taking in mildly ill patients directly, bypassing hospitals.

They worked with Woodlands Health, which is part of the National Healthcare Group, and with the private sector Parkway Pantai Group to care for these patients.

They also brought in Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) to help with the housekeeping, provision of food, and registration and discharge of patients.

Several town hall sessions were needed to explain the situation and persuade RWS employees to take on the work.

Mr Khoo said the mega resort brought its own computer system to manage the registration and discharge of patients - a massive job, since patients were coming in and leaving on a daily basis.

All bed frames, mattresses and walls had to be wiped down and disinfected between patients, and fresh linen provided.

Since April, RWS staff have prepared and served 1,330,992 meals and laundered 416,145 items.

More than two million personal protective equipment items such as masks, gowns and face shields were provided to volunteers working at the Expo to keep them safe.

The team managing the site had to work out "clean" and "dirty" lanes so infected patients do not accidentally transmit the virus to workers; with neutral transfer areas so things like food could be brought in by "outside" workers and later collected by those working on the inside.

It had to work out how to safely remove and clean bed covers and pillow cases, and ensure used personal protection equipment was properly discarded.

"We sometimes had to refine things on a day-by-day basis," Mr Khoo recalled. He said that at its peak, there were about 3,400 people working at the Expo, looking after the 8,000 patients.

They included medical teams, staff from RWS, security personnel from Certis, another wholly owned Temasek company, as well as teams looking after management, infrastructure and engineering.

Separate purpose-built toilets and showers were needed for patients and workers.

There were already 660 toilets at the Expo. Another 433 needed to be added to cope with the needs of the different groups.

They also set up disinfectant booths for workers leaving the facility, as an added protection.

Over the past month, the number of people getting infected started to fall off, leaving the Expo wards about 70 per cent empty. But there are no immediate plans to dismantle the set-up, in case there is a second wave of infections.

Temasek companies also provided "project leadership, contract facilitation and operational oversight" for the tentage at Tanjong Pagar Terminal and the floating facilities that can accommodate 15,000 recovered foreign workers.

Temasek did not profit from these facilities, providing them on a cost recovery basis, said Dr Alsagoff.

He added: "In addition, with our partners, we have supported the clearing of migrant worker dormitories by setting up sites to temporarily house healthy workers while their dorms are being cleaned, such as at Sungei Kadut."

Currently, it is helping to build new and better quarters for foreign workers that provide more space and lower risk of transmission of infectious diseases.

Said Dr Alsagoff: "At Temasek, we believe that corporates, together with the Government and the community, must all do our collective part to fight and defeat this Covid-19 pandemic.

"This is the time to do right and do good for the community. Only when the community is thriving, can we do well as an investor."

Correction note: This article has been updated for clarity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2020, with the headline 'Temasek arm joined battle with $800m war chest'. Print Edition | Subscribe