Thomas Frischmuth, managing director of Baseclick, which is also working on an mRNA vaccine against the coronavirus, explains the simple reason that production cannot be accelerated in the blink of an eye: the manufacture of glass vials for filling.
How are mRNA vaccines actually made?
First the so-called mRNA has to be generated. The m stands for messenger (in German: Bote), which is why one speaks of messenger RNA (RNA stands for ribonucleic acid). The mRNA contains a kind of blueprint for a surface structure of the Sars-CoV-2 coronavirus. After a vaccination, the body should form the harmless part of the virus in order to train the body’s defenses on it. The production of such mRNA has long been known, says Frischmuth. It becomes problematic because the mRNA for the vaccine has to be packed in a kind of envelope, which consists of specially produced fats (lipids).
So what’s the problem here?
Both the Mainz-based manufacturer Biontech and the Federal Association of the Pharmaceutical Industry declare that large quantities of mRNA vaccines could be produced in a short time, but the problem is the lipids. “There aren’t very many companies that can manufacture these fats,” added Frischmuth. In addition, the corona vaccines are the first to be based on mRNA. The supply chains were not designed to produce the required quantities. Until a year ago it was still an idea in the laboratory and suddenly the world is waiting for millions of cans. You need two lipids specially developed for the application and synthetic cholesterol, which has not previously been used in such quantities.
Can’t more production facilities be created?
Many companies have already expanded their production capacities and recruited contract manufacturers who deliver components or take on individual manufacturing steps, explains the Association of Research-Based Pharmaceutical Manufacturers (vfa). From Thomas Frischmuth’s point of view, it would be helpful if, for example, large companies such as detergent manufacturers temporarily converted parts of their fats production.
How is the problem with the bottlenecks mentioned?
According to Frischmuth, it is primarily about the glass vials with which the vaccination series are distributed to vaccination centers and doctors. The vfa also stated that these puncture vials and filling systems were identified as possible bottlenecks for supply. Some mRNA vaccines have to be cooled very strongly for storage. But most glass products are not made for temperatures down to minus 80 degrees. “That poses special challenges for the glass,” explains Thomas Frischmuth.
Are there any bright spots with the bottle?
Various manufacturers have now assured a comprehensive supply of pharmaceutical containers for the vaccines. A spokeswoman for Schott AG from Mainz announced that enough bottles would be delivered by the end of 2021 to fill more than two billion doses of various Covid-19 vaccines.
And other positive signals?
Work is underway in many places to build up further production capacities. With Biontech / Pfizer, Moderna and Astrazeneca only three vaccine manufacturers have approval. Curevac and Johnson & Johnson expect this in March. This means that the offer will increase so that the Chancellor’s promise “by the end of the third quarter, that is, by the end of summer, every citizen will be offered a vaccination” must be implemented. dpa / nd