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Singapore Minister says "a protracted method to go" vaccine distribution, different precautionary measures are helpful

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SINGAPORE – A coronavirus vaccine will not be the silver bullet to end the pandemic, the co-chair of the Singapore Covid-19 task force said this week despite "promising" news from pharmaceutical companies.

"We are certainly encouraged, it is very promising, but I would also say that the vaccine is not a silver bullet to end the pandemic," Lawrence Wong told Squawk Box Asia on Tuesday. "We shouldn't all put our eggs in the vaccination basket."

His comments came a day after biotech company Moderna announced that studies show its vaccine is more than 94% effective at preventing Covid-19. Pfizer said last week its vaccine was over 90% effective.

Wong, who is also the country's education minister, said developments are positive but there is "a long way to go" before the vaccines are safe and effective. They will then have to be distributed and it will take time to vaccinate a sufficient number of people, he added.

All of this really needs to come together – vaccines, testing, safe distancing, contact tracing.

Lawrence Wong

Singapore's Minister of Education

"We shouldn't just look at vaccines," he said. "We really need all the tools we have, and that includes testing – more effective testing methods that go beyond the" gold standard "of PCR testing."

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests are currently considered to be the most accurate for detecting coronavirus infection, but it can take a long time to show results.

"Developing new rapid tests that are cheaper, simpler and easier to manage is very important to ensure more comprehensive testing," said Wong.

He added that simple precautions like wearing masks, keeping social gatherings small, and keeping safe distances apart are "highly effective" in keeping the infection under control.

"We really need all of these to come together – vaccines, testing, safe distancing, contact tracing," he said.

Third phase of reopening

When asked when Singapore would enter the third stage of its reopening, the minister said the conditions had to be right.

"It's like … a fire that has just been put out. The embers are still there and it only takes a tiny spark to start the fire again," he said.

People wearing face masks as a precautionary measure walk down Orchard Road, a famous shopping area in Singapore.

Maverick Asio | SOPA pictures | LightRocket | Getty Images

Singapore was partially locked in April and has gradually reopened its economy since June. The second phase began in mid-June.

"When can we get to the third phase? I stressed that the point is not to rush to the third phase, but to make sure we get it right," said Wong.

Singapore is likely to allow for larger social gatherings in the next step of reopening and increasing capacity limits for public venues like museums.

The minister outlined three factors that must be present and where the country stands:

Effective test functions
"We're doing pretty well when testing metrics," said Wong. The country has reached its target capacity of 40,000 tests per day and continues to use both PCR testing and rapid antigen testing.Continued vigilance in the community
"For the most part, I think we are fine," said the minister, noting that there are occasional cases of people breaking the rules. He added that this is an ongoing measure for Singapore's "continued cooperation and compliance".Contact tracking skills
Around 50% of the population have downloaded the TraceTogether app or are using a token that Singapore can use to identify people who have been in close contact with confirmed coronavirus cases. "We want to get that to around 70% or more, and we think we can get it through by the end of the year," said Wong. "It might take a little longer, but that's the current timeframe we're working on."

"We will do our best to go through Phase 3 and gradually resume activities without turning on another breaker or lockout," he said. "I don't think anyone will want to go through this again."

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Katherine Clark