The national carrier yesterday said it is working with vaccine manufacturers and regulators to increase the amount of dry ice that can be carried safely on its planes from 3,500kg per cargo flight now.
Dry ice is key to preserving one of the two leading Covid-19 vaccine candidates at an ideal temperature while it is transported, but ways must be found to slow down the process by which it sublimates into carbon dioxide gas.
Meanwhile, there were five new coronavirus cases confirmed as at Sunday noon (Dec 6), with no new community cases reported.
All five cases were imported, and had been placed on stay-home notice (SHN) upon arrival in Singapore, said the Ministry of Health (MOH).
Sunday's cases take Singapore's total to 58,260.
SIA senior vice-president of cargo Chin Yau Seng said: "We are working to raise (the limit) even higher. So by the time we need it, I think we will be ready with the higher limits."
Various companies along the vaccine supply chain, including SIA, are building on their capabilities to handle an expected influx of vaccine cargo. Several said they are already well prepared to scale up, having had capabilities in place.
The Covid-19 vaccine candidate jointly developed by Pfizer and BioNTech will have to be stored long term at about minus 70 deg C. But this is not expected to be a major obstacle in terms of shipping to Singapore, as Pfizer will provide a shipping container that can maintain the required temperature for up to 10 days using dry ice. Once moved to a regular fridge, the vaccine has to be used within five days.
Meanwhile, the Moderna vaccine candidate has to be kept at minus 20 deg C for long-term storage, but can be kept in a regular fridge for up to a month. These requirements are within the capabilities of local air cargo handlers.
SIA noted that it transported about 22,000 tonnes of pharmaceutical shipments, including vaccines, on its cargo network in its last financial year.
On the carrier's ability to transport Covid-19 vaccines at scale when the time comes, Mr Chin said: "SIA has a well-established track record of safely and reliably transporting critical pharmaceutical shipments."
Changi Airport Group (CAG) managing director of air hub development Lim Ching Kiat said the Changi air hub has a dozen firms which have attained international certification in handling pharmaceutical cargo.
But to further prepare for Covid-19 vaccines, CAG has helped to set up an industry task force in Singapore, and also joined a global task force to ensure requirements are met.
Significant volumes of any Covid-19 vaccine - both from SIA and other foreign airlines - are expected to pass through Changi Airport when production goes into full tilt, given the airport's status as a transit hub.
London-based IAG Cargo and Germany's Lufthansa told The Sunday Times that they are able to increase flights to and through Singapore when the need to transport Covid-19 vaccines arises.
Lufthansa vice-president for the Asia-Pacific region J. Florian Pfaff said: "Singapore is not only ideal because it is geographically well located but also because of its excellent logistics infrastructure.
"It can serve as the perfect hub for delivering time-critical and temperature-sensitive commodities like Covid-19 vaccines to other South-east Asian countries as well as to Australia and New Zealand."
Meanwhile, Zuellig Pharma, a major pharmaceutical distributor with a presence in Singapore, said it is ready and able to take on the distribution of any vaccine locally and in the region.
Other major distributors operating in Singapore include GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.
Zuellig's executive vice-president of distribution and client services Tom Vanmolkot said the firm's storage capacity at Changi North Way was doubled in 2017.
He added: "Our specialist cold chain handling team is highly trained to ensure that all processes are followed when packing and delivering products in 2 to 8 deg, minus 20 deg and minus 70 deg Celsius packaging."
Dr Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases expert at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, said Singapore has established a reliable supply chain to handle vaccines correctly.
This, on top of Ministry of Health regulations on vaccine storage, means that vaccination in Singapore is safe and effective.
"The vaccine, if taken up in sufficient numbers, can significantly turn the tide for Singapore and the world," said Dr Leong.
But he said Singapore's ability to store the two leading Covid-19 vaccine candidates at scale for a longer period may be limited, noting that freezers that can store items at minus 70 deg C are hard to find and the logistics centres that distribute vaccines to clinics are generally set up to store them at about 2-8 deg C. - The Straits Times/Asian News Network