Merck's Hilleman Laboratories tees up $58M investment at new Singapore vaccine hub

A Hilleman Laboratories scientist performs cell propagation using the Cell Factory system. (Hilleman Laboratories)

Singapore has attracted a slate of vaccine heavyweights in recent years. Now, a Merck joint venture is getting in on the action, following in the footsteps of companies such as Thermo Fisher, Sanofi and BioNTech. 

Merck and Wellcome Trust’s Hilleman Laboratories on Monday unveiled a pilot manufacturing facility for vaccine development in Singapore. Comprising an R&D center and a clinical-stage factory, the new production and development hub will support Hilleman’s mission to create affordable biologics and vaccines for Singapore as well as low- and middle-income countries. It will also equip the country with manufacturing firepower to help tackle future pandemics, Hilleman said in a release.

The company will lay out 80 million Singapore dollars ($58 million) over the next five years to boost operations, infrastructure and capacity at the site. Hilleman also says it will recruit up to 50 scientists, engineers and managers in the country. 

The Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) will help fund the project, Hilleman said. EDB’s backing will allow Hilleman to expand its product development pipeline and tap into local talent and resources “to fast-track the development of novel therapies to tackle the high disease burden of preventable diseases in developing countries.”

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On the production side, Hilleman’s pilot facility includes a 30,000-square-foot production plant, which has been pegged to supply clinical trial materials for biologics and vaccines up to phase 2. The plant is expected to be fully operational by early 2023.

Hilleman’s Singapore R&D facility, which kicked off operations in April, focuses on early development including candidate selection, design, early manufacturing process development and preclinical studies. By setting up its R&D and production facilities in tandem, Hilleman aims to provide end-to-end product development services from concept to manufacturing.

Merck and Wellcome Trust set up Hilleman Laboratories in 2009 with a mission to develop vaccines and biologics against infectious diseases in low- and middle-income countries.

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Merck and Hilleman aren’t the only drugmakers establishing vaccine operations in Singapore. CDMO major Thermo Fisher Scientific last October unveiled plans to stand up a new, $130 million facility in Singapore that will house two sterile filling lines with capacity for up to 30 million doses of drugs and vaccines per month. The site is expected to come online in 2022, Thermo Fisher said last year.

Elsewhere, Sanofi in April said it would plug 400 million euros into a new vaccine production site in Singapore over the next five years. The plant will feature a central unit equipped with several fully digitized modules. This will allow Sanofi to turn out three or four vaccines at once, versus one at its current industrial sites.

Plus, Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine partner BioNTech in May said it would partner with the local government to set up a Southeast Asia regional headquarters in Singapore. The plan includes a highly automated mRNA manufacturing facility.