Moderna's coronavirus vaccine maker identifies 'big challenges' to mass production

  • Moderna's announcement earlier this week that its vaccine was more than 94% effective at preventing the coronavirus raised global hopes further that an end to the pandemic could be in sight.
  • There are big logistical challenges facing drugmakers, however.
  • Vaccines require very specific manufacturing and transportation conditions.

Moderna's announcement earlier this week that its vaccine was more than 94% effective at preventing the coronavirus, according to preliminary trial data, raised global hopes further that a resolution to the pandemic that has killed over 1.3 million could be in sight.

The news followed on from Pfizer and BioNTech's equally positive news that their vaccine candidate was over 90% effective. The news from Moderna was hailed as a "game changer" and Pfizer's chief executive described the vaccine achievement as "a great day for science and humanity."

As the market revelry at the news continued, attention quickly turned to practical matters given the unprecedented logistical challenge posed by producing and distributing vaccines, should they receive final regulatory approval, to a global population of around 7 billion people.

Vaccines need to be produced and transported in specific (and cold) conditions otherwise they can be rendered ineffective; this poses a huge challenge for global drugmakers when it comes to vaccine distribution.

Swiss drugmaker Lonza has partnered with Moderna and says it aims to produce 400 million doses of the vaccine annually. The U.S. firm is aiming for 500 million to 1 billion doses in total for 2021. Anyone receiving the vaccine will require two doses, as with Pfizer's shot, showing how long it could take, with the current manufacturing capacity, to vaccinate internationally.

Lonza will produce ingredients within Moderna's vaccine, formally called mRNA-1273, in facilities in the U.S. and Switzerland, where it is headquartered. Company Chairman Albert Baehny told CNBC about the "big challenges" facing drugmakers like his when it comes to scaling up production.

"We can only produce more than 500 million doses a year if we install additional manufacturing lines, so it is clear that we need additional investments in installation if we want to produce more than 500 million (per year) in the future," he told CNBC's "Squawk Box Europe" on Wednesday.

Baehny identified more challenges to vaccine production that the company had had to confront since embarking on its partnership with Moderna.

"There are a few issues, the first is speed. We only started 10, 11 months ago and now we are producing the first commercial batches of the drug substance in North America, and we are planning the first batch of commercial volume in one or two weeks in Switzerland, so the speed has been a challenge."

"The second challenge is to find the people. For each manufacturing line you need 60-70 educated persons. We've installed four manufacturing lines so you have to identify and train these people," he said.

"Then linked to the speed (issue), you have to have access to the equipment, install the equipment, and then test your manufacturing facility, so (these are) big challenges, resolved, or almost resolved, in less than one year."

Temperature, and keeping the vaccines cold enough during transportation, is another big challenge.

Pfizer's vaccine requires a storage temperature of minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit, or -70 degrees Celsius. By comparison, Moderna said on Monday that its vaccine remains stable at 36 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit — the temperature of a standard home or medical refrigerator — for up to 30 days. It can be stored for up to six months at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

"Those are standard conditions in the pharmaceutical industry," Baehny said. "So I don't see many problems for the distribution, for the shipping and for the storage of Moderna's vaccine," he said.

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