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Pharma exports a rare bright spot for Singapore economy as pandemic drives demand

Aradhana Aravindan
FILE PHOTO: An employee checks readings at a laboratory in a pharmaceutical manufacturing factory in Singapore

By Aradhana Aravindan

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore's exports of pharmaceutical products have surged this year as the coronavirus pandemic prompts worldwide stockpiling of drug ingredients, providing a much needed salve for an economy facing its deepest recession in its 55-year history.

Pharmaceutical output in Singapore has spiked 86% so far this year, official data showed on Tuesday, while export data for April showed pharmaceutical shipments surged 174% from the same month a year earlier, albeit from a low base.

Singapore is one of the few countries in the world that exports more pharmaceuticals than it imports, according to Fitch Solutions. It has more than 50 pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities, including plants owned by eight of the world's ten biggest pharma firms.

Companies and governments around the world are building large inventories of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) and drugs to ensure supplies of medicines remain uninterrupted and can be made close to market, said How Ti Hwei, president of the Singapore Association of Pharmaceutical Industries.

"Across the board there is stocking up," he said.

How said the pandemic has driven up demand for intensive care and emergency-use drugs, including antibiotics and anaesthesia products. The United States, Europe and Japan were Singapore's biggest export destinations for APIs in recent months, he added.

U.S. drugmaker Pfizer <PFE.N> said in an emailed statement it had seen a "tremendous increase in demand" for anti-infectives - a generic term for drugs used to treat infections such as antibiotics and antivirals - which it produces in Singapore and elsewhere.

The beefing up of drug inventories has helped lift exports from Singapore for three straight months, defying analysts' forecasts that overall shipments would fall.

The government has warned, however, the economy could shrink as much as 7% this year, as the pandemic batters other sectors such as construction and tourism.

"Pharmaceutical production and exports will be a boon for Singapore's overall manufacturing and trade environment," said UOB economist Barnabas Gan.

Its biomedical industry, which employs more than 24,000 people, accounted for about 20% of the manufacturing sector in 2019 which in turn accounted for about a fifth of GDP.

Employment in the biomedical sector has also nearly doubled over the past decade while employment for manufacturing overall has fallen about 10%.


(Reporting by Aradhana Aravindan in Singapore; Editing by John Geddie and Edwina Gibbs)