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Vaccines arrive in Singapore: 5 pillars for overcoming COVID

From rapid tests to meetings divided by glass, city isn't relying on shots alone

COVID-19 vaccines arrive in Singapore's Changi Airport on Dec. 21. (Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Communications and Information)

SINGAPORE -- Singapore has received its first batch of Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine. The city-state's emergency approval of the vaccine last week paved the way for it to be the first Asian country to receive the shots.

It marks a major step toward an economic acceleration in 2021. But the vaccine is only part of its recovery plans.

From rapid virus testing to face-to-face business meetings divided by glass, the country is devising ways to work around the threat even before widespread immunizations.

Singapore has largely contained COVID-19, recording only two community cases so far this month. While around 10 to 20 daily imported cases underscore the persistent danger, restrictions on the local population are due to be loosened further on Dec. 28.

Armed with a combination of inoculations and ideas, the city-state also aims to revive travel and trade -- essential for its "hub" economy model. This way, the government hopes to kick-start a rebound from the forecast 6% to 6.5% contraction in gross domestic product for 2020.

Other countries might find useful solutions in Singapore's anti-COVID playbook. Here are five pillars for its recovery.

Fast and free vaccinations for all

On Monday evening, the first shipment of the Pfizer vaccine arrived at Changi Airport on a Singapore Airlines flight.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 68, has said he would be among the early recipients of the vaccine in the nation of 5.7 million people, which has one of the lowest coronavirus fatality rates globally.

"Delighted to see the first shipment of vaccines arrive in Singapore," Lee posted on Facebook on Monday.

An artist's rendering shows the courtyard of Connect@Changi -- a planned facility near Singapore's airport that will allow business travelers and locals to meet safely. (Courtesy of Connect@Changi)

Singapore expects to have enough vaccines for all residents aged 16 or older, including foreign nationals, by the end of 2021. Immunizations will not be mandatory, but the government will strongly encourage getting the shots, which will be free.

"Vaccination is one of the key enablers that will protect us and our loved ones against COVID-19 infection and allow the economy to open up," the Health Ministry's director of medical services, Kenneth Mak, told reporters on Dec. 14.

Lee announced an interim authorization of the Pfizer vaccine that day. In doing so, he stressed that a great deal of behind-the-scenes work had led up to the moment. "We started talking to the pharmaceutical companies early to understand the science, and identify the promising candidates and the vaccines likely to reach production sooner," he said.

The Health Sciences Authority said that when it comes to safety, the Pfizer vaccine appears to be "generally consistent with other registered vaccines" for other diseases.

The HSA said it reviewed data from laboratory studies and clinical trials, while also looking at manufacturing and quality controls. "Two groups of experts from HSA's Medicines Advisory Committee and Panel of Infectious Diseases Experts, comprising medical doctors and infectious diseases specialists, were consulted during the review to ensure that the vaccine is safe, efficacious and of good quality based on the data submitted to-date."

While the HSA acknowledged there may be side effects similar to those of other vaccines, it "found that the benefits of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine outweigh the known risks."

A vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19: Singapore expects to have enough vaccines for all residents aged 16 or older, including foreign nationals, by the end of 2021.   © Reuters

Given its reliance on connections with the rest of the world, Singapore also needs other countries to obtain enough doses, too. So the city-state is beefing up its cold chain and positioning itself as a distribution center for the region, which would also help the ailing airline industry. "As a global aviation hub," Lee said, "we play a crucial role transporting vaccines around the world."

The government has cautioned residents against becoming careless just because a vaccine is on the way. "Vaccination is not a silver bullet that will immediately end the pandemic," Mak warned. "The key is not to let our guard down and to let our painstaking efforts in the past few months go to waste."

Quick virus testing at events

Singapore has been piloting "antigen rapid tests" that return results fast enough for on-site screening at events, hoping to create a new safety standard.

At a recent concert, the testing opened two hours before the show. Audience members were required to take the swab test in a booth and wait about 20 minutes for the results to be sent to their phones by text message. To enter the venue, they had to display the message on the way in.

This is not a foolproof solution: The tests have a lower accuracy rate than the standard PCR tests deployed worldwide. But the authorities think the system will reduce the chances of a virus carrier entering, mitigating risks alongside other safety measures such as face masks.

The antigen tests could be an important part of Singapore's safety arsenal as it looks to host bigger events and conferences.

Indeed, the World Economic Forum announced earlier this month that it will hold its special annual meeting in Singapore in May -- rather than the traditional summit in Davos, Switzerland, in January.

Hybrid conferences

The transplanted Davos forum may also give Singapore a chance to show off its "hybrid" conference concept, mixing in-person sessions with online elements.

As a regional hub, Singapore hosts many international meetings and exhibitions in normal times -- an industry estimated to provide over 34,000 jobs and add 3.8 billion Singapore dollars ($2.79 billion) of economic value.

Entirely online events cannot make up the slack, since there is no need to rent out conference rooms and there are no visitors to stay at hotels. But a combination of live and online events can drum up revenue while keeping the danger in check.

Some events in Singapore have already straddled the real and virtual worlds: the Singapore Fintech Festival that took place in early December was one example.

More events and conferences are expected to go hybrid in 2021, buoying what is known as the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions sector, or MICE.

'Business travel exchange'

Singapore is going to great lengths to enable smaller business meetings, too.

A new twist on the "travel bubble" concept will allow business and other "high value" visitors to come to the city-state for up to 14 days. For the first time, all countries of origin will be eligible. But this will be far from your ordinary business trip -- travelers will be segregated in groups of up to five at designated accommodations, undergo regular testing, carry contact-tracing devices and only meet fellow guests and local contacts in rooms equipped with airtight dividers.

A key venue for this "business travel exchange" is scheduled to open in February, after a remodeling of the Singapore Expo exhibition center near Changi Airport. Dubbed Connect@Changi, the center will ultimately have 340 meeting rooms and 1,300 guest rooms by mid-2021.

The conference rooms will have floor-to-ceiling glass in the middle, allowing domestic businesspeople to meet with overseas visitors without risking close contact.

Connect@Changi will have conference rooms with floor-to-ceiling glass dividers, as seen in this rendering. (Courtesy of Connect@Changi)

Visitors will be shuttled directly from the airport to the facility, and will be prohibited from going out into the city. The cost of staying at Connect@Changi will be about 400 Singapore dollars per night, including meals and transportation -- comparable to a luxury business hotel.

"We have come up with a new concept ... so that travelers from both country A and B can safely meet in Singapore, and also to meet business partners in Singapore," Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing told reporters on Dec. 15.

In addition to potentially giving airlines a dose of relief, officials say Connect@Changi itself will create over 800 jobs in construction, maintenance and services.

Travel green lanes

The business travel exchange is intended to complement the growing list of reciprocal "green lanes" or "bubbles" Singapore has set up with other individual countries.

Singapore has been one of Asia's leaders when it comes to arranging quarantine-free travel under extensive safety rules. It has green lanes for business trips with China, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, Brunei, Indonesia and Germany.

The next step is to revive leisure travel, but this has proved more difficult.

The city-state had agreed to open a bilateral bubble with Hong Kong for general travelers in late November, but rising COVID-19 cases in the Chinese-ruled city prompted a postponement the day before the launch date. The new start date remains undecided.

Additional reporting by Mayuko Tani.

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