Two of the three biggest Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers, Moderna and BioNTech/Pfizer, are racing to sign up partners to secure their supply chains, according to people with knowledge of the discussions, as health systems around the world struggle to bring immunisation programmes up to speed.
The companies have had their vaccines approved for use in either Europe or the US and are now working to distribute forward orders. Both use messenger RNA technology that is delivered to cells in microscopic oily droplets. Both were found to be 95 per cent effective in late-stage clinical trials.
The current slower than expected rollout of national vaccination campaigns has been caused by distribution problems, rather than gaps in the supply of components to make the vaccines, the people said. Officials in Europe, the US and the UK have acknowledged that vaccination targets have not been met.
Ugur Sahin, chief executive of BioNTech, told German magazine Der Spiegel that BioNTech was trying to find new production partners.
“But it’s not as if there are specialised factories lying idle all over the world that could produce vaccines of the necessary quality overnight,” he said. “At the end of January we will know whether and how much more we can produce.”
Pfizer declined to comment. Moderna did not respond to a request for comment.
Andrey Zarur, head of GreenLight Biosciences, said ingredients stockpiled ahead of vaccine approvals would supply the first 1bn-2bn doses, but bottlenecks would emerge after that.
Challenges include sourcing items ranging from DNA molecules to lipid nanoparticles — the microscopic oily droplets that deliver the vaccine’s active mRNA ingredient — he said. “Pfizer and Moderna have kicked off conversations with suppliers like Trilink, Aldevron and New England Biolabs to answer the challenge, but it will require government and deep cross-industry co-operation to make it work.”
Moderna and BioNTech/Pfizer are on the hunt for partners that can help them sustain manufacturing, especially for production of lipid nanoparticles, the people said.
Production of lipid nanoparticles takes place in two stages. There is currently a bottleneck in the production of equipment to manufacture the finished product, one of the people said.
Supply chain issues are not new to this pandemic. Earlier this year, there were bottlenecks in the PCR tests that are the gold standard for DNA testing as demand surged. Most of the PCR supply chain has now been expanded to cope with this increased demand.
Additional reporting by Joe Miller in Frankfurt