GSK Biologicals: Upbeat about Vaccines

The biomedical sector is a key engine of the Singapore economy. Within this sector, the vaccine industry is set to flourish with the growing economies of China and India, and Singapore is well-positioned to ride on this wave.

By Ruth Wong

In the western region of Singapore, employees of GSK Biologicals busy themselves with setting up their company’s first vaccine manufacturing plant in Asia. Never mind that they are working in temporary office blocks. The excitement of being the pioneers of the plant and becoming a part of Singapore’s thriving biomedical industry certainly make up for the challenges faced...

After all, the local biomedical sector, comprising pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, medical technology and healthcare services, is set to become a key pillar of the Singapore economy. Last year, the fast-growing sector produced 10.1% of the nation’s total manufacturing output—a remarkable SGD24 billion in monetary terms. Furthermore, it provided over 11,500 jobs in 2007, double the number in 2000.

If these awesome figures are not convincing enough, consider this: the global vaccine industry was reported to be worth USD6.9 billion in 2007, and it is expected to triple by 2010. In addition, for two consecutive years since 2006, Singapore has been ranked amongst the top five biotech regions in the world by FierceBiotech, a US newsletter for the industry.

With such rosy outlooks for the industry, it is little wonder that GSK Biologicals employees are feeling all upbeat and excited.

Leading vaccine manufacturer
GSK Biologicals is the vaccine division of pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). Today, it supplies about a quarter of the world’s vaccines. Headquartered in Belgium, it has investments in vaccine manufacturing plants in Europe, North America, and now, Asia.

Located at Tuas Biomedical Park, the new plant, with state-of-the art biotechnology, is expected to be operational in 2010. It will manufacture vaccines for protection against diseases such as meningitis and typhoid.

The company is now expanding and is actively recruiting new employees to support its starting up.

Working in a start-up
Jazrinah Bte Pungot, 23, and Riant Tay, 22, are Quality Control (QC) Technicians in the QC (Chemistry) Department at GSK Biologicals. They graduated with Diplomas in Chemical Engineering from Temasek Polytechnic and Ngee Ann Polytechnic respectively.

While Jazrinah had worked a few years (also as a QC Technician) prior to joining GSK Biologicals, this is Riant’s first job after serving his stint in the army. Nevertheless, both share a common reason for joining the company.

“In my previous workplace, many colleagues from the pioneer batch told me that starting up a plant is very fun and there is great satisfaction from seeing the progress of the plant. So I wanted to work here to see how it is like to build up a manufacturing plant,” explained Jazrinah.

Riant nodded in agreement, “I wanted the firsthand experience of setting up a plant too. Especially for someone fresh in the workforce, I think it is good to start from the beginning. Besides, it is a big company, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies, so it’s really a privilege to be here.”

Interestingly for both, they found themselves amidst a young team, and quite literally so as many of the members are their peers.

“Everyone is very friendly and my colleagues in the department are mostly my age, so I can communicate with them better,” noted Riant, who only joined GSK Biologicals in July this year.

For Jazrinah, who came in a month after Riant, it also means having the chance to share her experience. “In the past, I was the youngest in the team. But now, I’m more senior compared to some colleagues and so I get to share my experience and knowledge with them,” she enthused.

Fresh challenges
While both have no lack of enthusiasm, working in a start-up brings with it new challenges.

One of the main responsibilities of a QC Technician is performing laboratory tests of raw materials, in-process samples and finished products.

However, during this period before the laboratory is ready, Jazrinah and Riant are involved in writing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), assisting with equipment purchases, and later on, performing equipment verification and validation, as well as participating in method transfers. All these have proven to be a steep learning curve for both.

Jazrinah said, “I had no hands-on experience in writing SOPs, so when I came here, it was a totally new task for me. But I like new challenges and I want to learn.”

“I’ve never seen all these operating procedures before. Even though we had undergone internship programmes in school, it was to prepare us to work in the plants, not in a start-up. So we are learning more things now than what we were taught in school,” shared Riant.

To write the SOPs, they were given translated copies of the Belgian procedures. However, they couldn’t lift everything off the pages and apply them wholesale. For instance, the temperature and humidity in Singapore is different from Belgium’s. In writing the new SOPs, Jazrinah and Riant needed to know how to adapt the Belgian methods and procedures to suit the local context.

Learning is essential
Thankfully, Jazrinah and Riant are not left alone to struggle with the task. Guidance is always at hand.

Riant, thankful for his supervisors, said, “My supervisors are always ready to teach newcomers and give me on-the-job training. If I make a mistake, they will guide me.”

Indeed, with R&D driving the engines of success, being at the cutting edge is critical to the GSK business. Constant upgrading of skills and knowledge becomes essential for employees, and is a strong part of the company culture.

In addition to on-the-job learning, the company also provides readily accessible e-training programmes. Sometimes, employees may even go on learning stints at GSK’s Belgian plants, so as to bring back knowledge of new technologies and methods.

The company’s learning culture resonates with Riant. “I intend to further my studies and get a degree. That would also allow me to move on to other departments and positions,” he explained.

For Jazrinah, she is looking forward to growing with the company. “I’m really fortunate and grateful to be part of the pioneer team to set up this plant. I hope to further improve my skills and knowledge and progress professionally in the future.”

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