No, there aren’t millions of glass vials waiting for a coronavirus vaccine yet
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This week, the FDA approved remdesivir as the first treatment for COVID-19. That’s as hundreds of vaccine trials designed to prevent spread of the virus continue in earnest around the world.
Vaccine discovery is one challenge, but so is distribution.
A key element of getting vaccines to the world is the containers shots will be packaged in once they’re approved. It’s easy to imagine that glass vials, sitting empty on warehouse shelves, could be easily deployed to all corners of the globe, filled and distributed to people.
But, it’s not quite that easy.
Glass vials vary in size, labelling is an important part of meeting local regulations in different countries, and that means production for COVID-19 vaccine vials hasn’t actually started.
Fabian Stöcker, vice president of global strategy and innovation at Schott Pharmaceutical Systems, one of the world’s biggest suppliers of glass vaccine vials, spoke to the BBC’s Victoria Craig on the global edition of “Marketplace Morning Report.” Below is an edited version of their conversation.
Fabian Stöcker: We have seen a lot of new vaccine projects, a couple of hundreds, as you know. And of course, every project needs packaging. And the packaging of choice in these times is borosilicate glass vial. So we’ve seen lots of requests coming from pharma customers, to us, because everybody, of course, is keen on securing the supply chain.
Keeping up with all of the vaccine candidates
Victoria Craig: Back in June, you were having to actually turn down requests for vials from pharmaceutical giants, because you weren’t sure you’d have enough vials to go around. Has that problem been solved now?
Stöcker: Yeah, I think it was a little bit of a misunderstanding or miscommunication. So we have not turned down any requests. What we have done, we have discussed with our customers, how do we secure the supply? And I think the thing is, if you look into the drug pipeline, there is different phases you have to go through from preclinical phase one, phase two, phase three. And of course, if you would add up all projects, and then calculate the demand, that would not be possible to fulfill it. However, we know that only a couple of these vaccine candidates will see the market. And, as such, we have of course focused on those that are far in the pipeline, and others that are currently in preclinical, etc., they are not needing bigger volumes. So we are working closely with our customers, but those who are more far more along in the process, needed earlier, and that’s why we have prioritized it that way. But I would not say that we have turned down requests.
Determining the demand for vials based on vaccine formats
Craig: As you say, with so many trials underway, how are you able to gauge demand for vials, since we’re not sure which ones will work and whether more than one dose will be required? So how do you sort of figure out how many vials you’re going to need, in the end?
Stöcker: What we have said, we can commit, for the next year, for roughly 2 billion doses. And the number of vials is depending on the format, because there will be some vials where you have an injection, that is only a single shot, that you need a small vial, for example, a two milliliter vial. There are some vaccine candidates in the pipeline that will work with a bigger virus, so multiple shots. So 2 milliliter and 10 milliliter are the most common formats. And then we’re, of course, in very close contact with all our customers to specify which one will it be.
And then as we are running a global production network of about 16 production plants around the world, we are then trying to, let’s say, put that to the local requirements. Because we see currently there will be vaccines launched in the U.S., in Europe, in China, in India, in Russia. So there will be different candidates coming to the market, at least from what we see so far. And we think we can deal with it due to our global manufacturing footprint. And on top of this, we have started already before COVID-19 came, a big investment program, roughly $1 billion in operations and can use that, at least a part of it, for the customer demands.
Craig: And how quickly can you increase that production? Are all of the vials that you think you’re going to need, In the end, are they already made? Or will you be producing them as they’re needed?
Stöcker: That is normally not possible to make a preproduction because first you have to know which exact buy you need. Overall, we produce every year 11 billion containers. And that means, if you have such a big network, that you can very flexibly then turn on the machines when you know the format and produce it, let it run for couple of weeks and normally then the order is fulfilled.
A timeline for distributing vaccine vials
Craig: So once a vaccine has been approved, and it has been determined that it’s safe for distribution, how quickly can you get the vials where they need to go to be filled and then delivered to everyone in the world?
Stöcker: That will be normally a couple of weeks. When you get a market registration of the vaccine, you have to also specify the packaging for this already, that is part of the registration process. So before the vaccine will come through the market, we know what packaging it will be. And then we can closely align with our customers what we are doing currently, how much is needed where. And that is currently happening. So we have closed a couple of contracts already with big customers. And we exactly know the format, we exactly know the volumes and we exactly know at what time they have to be [ready].
Craig: So what’s the biggest challenge left for you now or are you fairly well prepared at this point?
Stöcker: Well the biggest challenge is of course to produce it all. In pandemic times we have to make sure that our network is running, that our plants can stay open, because, also, we have to — or we have already taken a lot of measures that our employees are safe and not being infected. So that is of course what we are going to continue because we have to hold up our capacity and [keep] our plants open.
And then it’s about finding the right balancing, basically, because you have to understand it’s not only COVID-19 vaccine packaging that has to be produced. There are also other lifesaving drugs that are needed and that, also, the packaging is needed. And that is what is coming over the next 12 months. It will not be easy, that’s for sure. But I think we have taken measures, that we are prepared as best as we can. And that is what we try to do to, basically, solve the pandemic crisis from our end.
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