1. Pfizer-BioNTech says COVID-19 vaccine works against UK and South Africa mutations
Amidst concerns about the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines against the new strains of the virus, Pfizer-BioNTech has come out to say that their vaccine retains its effectiveness against the UK and South African strains.
In a statement, the two companies said these preliminary findings “do not indicate the need for a new vaccine to address the emerging variants”. They also indicated that they are “prepared to respond” if a new strain evades the immunity of the current vaccines. This will be done by producing updates to the existing vaccines.
The study was carried out by researchers from Pfizer and the University of Texas, who compared the antibodies of 20 people who had received two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine during clinical trials with lab-engineered sets of mutations present in the variants that emerged in Britain and South Africa.
Although the study has yet to be peer reviewed, its findings showed that the antibodies were able to neutralise all the sets of mutations tested. It noted that the effect was “slightly lower” against three mutations in the variant found in South Africa, including E484K.
But the firms said that it was “unlikely to lead to a significant reduction in the effectiveness of the vaccine”.
2. Minister Chan Chun Sing highlights 5-pronged plan to develop Singapore as global e-commerce hub
Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing spoke on Thursday at Amazon’s Southeast Asia Online Seller Summit about Singapore’s five-pronged strategy to establish ourselves as a regional and global e-commerce hub.
The first prong of Singapore’s e-commerce strategy will involve the implementation of two nationwide 5G networks by 2025, enabling infrastructure capacity to manage large online sales orders internationally. As part of this prong, firms are also encouraged to adopt digital solutions such as E-Invoicing Network and PayNow Corporate.
Secondly, the government is working with businesses to build strong supply chain capabilities. This involves developing value-added and specialised capabilities in areas such as cold-chain management, retail, and pharmaceutical logistics.
Next, the government is boosting security efforts to protect businesses against cyber threats. Additionally, Singapore has signed Digital Economy Agreements (DEAs) with New Zealand, Australia, and Chile to improve digital connectivity and ensure secure data flows.
It is also working on signing these deals with other countries such as South Korea and Britain.
Fourth, the Government aims to support local businesses in gaining e-commerce capabilities and maximising their growth opportunities from the digital economy.
As part of this, Enterprise Singapore (ESG) is currently in talks with Amazon on new training programmes to equip small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with the necessary skills and resources to sell overseas via the e-commerce platform.
Singapore also has the Grow Digital Initiative by the Infocomm Media Development Authority and ESG, which helps businesses venture into e-commerce and reach an international customer base. Businesses who wish to expand into new foreign markets may also seek grant support from ESG’s Market Readiness Assistance scheme.
Finally, Singapore will continue to ensure that policies are in place to help businesses overcome COVID-19 and enable them to continue operations with minimal disruption.
3. Commuters can now top up EZ-Link cards remotely through mobile app
EZ-Link announced on Thursday new account-based cards that allow commuters to make top-ups through a mobile application. They can be purchased at $12, including $7 of stored value. Alternatively, commuters can update their existing cards and charms for free to the new system at ticketing machines and TransitLink Offices islandwide.
This new system will allow commuters to top up their own accounts as well as that of their family members’ through the app. This saves them the trouble of queuing to top up at ticketing machines or having insufficient value on their cards with no machines nearby.
Additionally, users can track their spending and receive notifications for every transaction made or when their account balance is low. Should they misplace their cards, users can also block further transactions via the mobile app within 30 minutes.
Under this new system, card balance and trip fares will no longer be displayed on bus readers and MRT gantries. Instead, commuters can check their transactions at ticketing machines or view up to the last 180 days of fare transaction history, and access other ticketing services (e.g., claims submission) through the TransitLink SimplyGo app.
Motorists should also note that the updated cards cannot be used for motoring payments such as Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) and car park charges. Existing EZ-link cards can still be used.
Eventually, the Land Transport Authority will be phasing out the existing card-based ticketing system once commuters have had time to familiarise themselves with the new one.
This launch comes after a pilot trial was carried out for about 3,000 EZ-Link mobile app users in September 2020; more than 80 per cent of participants reported a positive experience using the card.
A similar pilot for concession cards that supports account-based ticketing is slated to begin later in 2021.
4. Singapore’s unemployment rate dips for second straight month as labour market shows signs of recovery
In the last quarter of 2020, Singapore’s labour market showed “a broad improvement” based on preliminary estimates released by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). The numbers cited have excluded foreign domestic workers.
Overall unemployment fell for the second month in a row in December to 3.2 per cent (from 3.3 per cent in November.). Resident (Singaporeans and permanent residents) unemployment rate fell to 4.4 percent from 4.6 per cent, while citizen unemployment dipped to 4.5 per cent from 4.7 per cent.
When compared to September 2020, the overall unemployment rate in December was down by 0.4 per cent (from 3.6 per cent in September). However, the annual average unemployment rates in 2020 were still higher than that of 2019, with overall unemployment up from 2.3 per cent to 3.0 per cent.
Resident unemployment rate has increased from 3.1 per cent in 2019 to 4.1 per cent in 2020, while citizen unemployment rate increased from 3.3 percent to 4.2 per cent. Overall, the unemployment rates in 2020 have still stayed below the annual rates observed during SARS in 2003 and the global financial crisis in 2009.
MOM has, however, recorded a return in resident employment to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2020, with a growth of 28,900 in the fourth quarter of 2020 and 9.300 for the entire year.
The resident unemployment rate increasing in December 2020 as compared to December 2019 thus suggests that resident workforce participation was sustained during the pandemic, as more jobseekers joined or remained in the workforce than exited.
Meanwhile, non-resident employment shrunk by another 42,400 in the fourth quarter of 2020. For the entire year, non-resident employment fell by 181,500 or around 16 per cent. This means that overall employment contracted by 172,200 for the whole of 2020.
The decline in non-resident employment was observable across all sectors while resident employment fell mostly in sectors affected by COVID-19. On the other hand, most of the increases in resident employment were in growth sectors such as info-communications and technology, financial services, and professional services.
The rebound of resident employment despite the increase of resident unemployment can be attributed to new entrants into the labour force coupled with the economic downturn.
In terms of retrenchments, the total number in 2020 is expected to hit 26,570, more than double the figure of 10,690 seen in 2019. Retrenchments rose primarily in the three sectors of arts, entertainment and creation, wholesale trade, and air transport services.
Still, the retrenchment rates in 2020 (13.0 retrenched per 1,000 employees) was still lower than that of previous recessionary years.
In Q4 2020, retrenchment rates dipped for the first time with about 6,100 people expected to be retrenched as opposed to the 9,120 in the third quarter of 2020. This will be the first dip in retrenchment rates after five consecutive quarters of increases.
MOM has said that it is still up in the air whether overall retrenchments will continue to fall in 2021 as the economic climate remains uncertain and consumer demand remains low.
5. Improvements to heat injury prevention and management rolled out after NSF’s heatstroke death
Following the death of 19-year-old full-time national serviceman (NSF) Dave Lee Han Xuan, a five-member panel was convened to review the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF)’s strategy for heat injury prevention and management.
Since August 2018, the SAF has made use of purpose-built cooling pads and an arm-immersion cooling system to combat heat injury.
Arm immersion is a preventive measure where soldiers dip their arms into iced water for between 15 seconds and 30 seconds to help cool their core body temperature. It is done during rest periods in training and after training.
Purpose-built cooling pads, which can be stuck on the body, also help to cool a person with a suspected heat injury.
Additionally, further enhancements were introduced last year, such as a simplified evacuation protocol; improving heat injury awareness for commanders and medics; enhancing existing cooling and heat injury prevention measures; and strengthening an open reporting culture.
The panel added that Mindef and SAF will “continue to review and identify ways to strengthen our safety management and training system, with the goal of achieving zero training fatalities”.