Myths of Vaccine Manufacturing

By Derek Lowe

In the last few days, the question of why more drug companies haven’t been enlisted for vaccine production has come up. It’s mostly due to this tweet:

The problem is, as far as I can see, this is simply wrong. There are not “dozens of other pharma companies” who “stand ready” to produce these mRNA vaccines. To me, this betrays a lack of knowledge about what these vaccines are and how they’re produced. Even though I’m not a pharma manufacturing person, I am indeed a pharma researcher in general. So I would be glad to fill in this gap, and here’s why it’s not possible to suddenly unleash dozens of companies to crank out the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

The first thing to understand is that these are not, of course, traditional vaccines. That’s why they came on so quickly. mRNA as a vaccine technology has been worked on for some twenty to twenty-five years now, from what I can see, and (as I never tire of mentioning) we’re very fortunate that it had worked out (and quite recently) several of its outstanding problems just before this pandemic hit. Five years ago we simply could not have gone from sequence to vaccine inside of a year. And I mean that “we” to mean both “we the biopharma industry” and “we the human race”.

At this point, let me briefly dispose of an even less well-founded take that’s been going around as well. I’ve seen a number of people say something like “We had the vaccine back in February! It only took until the end of the year to roll it out because of the FDA!” The main thing I’ll say about that idea is that no one who actually works on vaccines, in any capacity, has any time for that statement. Not all vaccine ideas work – we’re already seeing that with the current coronavirus, and if you’d like to talk to some folks about that, then I suggest you call up GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi and ask them what happened to their initial candidate, and while you’re at it, call up Merck and ask them what happened to their two. Note that I have just named three of the largest, most experienced drug companies on the planet, all of whom have come up short. So no, we did not “have the vaccine” in February.

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One of the other reasons we didn’t have it back then is the whole problem of figuring out how to make the stuff, and that brings us back to today’s discussion. How do you make the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines? And what’s stopping “dozens of other pharma companies” from doing the same? Let’s get into those details, stopping briefly again to imagine asking James Hamblin above to actually start naming “dozens” of pharma companies. Anyone have a good over/under on how many names would get rattled off?

OK, let’s look at the actual supply chains. The single most informative piece I have seen on this is from Jonas Neubert – I’ve recommended it before, and this is absolutely the time to recommend it again. I also have to mention this detailed article at the Washington Post, which focuses on the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, and this one at KHN about manufacturing bottlenecks in general. You should also read this Twitter thread from Rajeev Venkayya, who knows what he’s talking about when it comes to vaccine manufacturing, too. All of these will cover details that I’m not even going to get to today!

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