06/04/2021 | Pharma Innovation

Heroes in the shadows

The battle to produce COVID-19 vaccines has made pharmaceutical companies household names. But away from the headlines an entire industry was quietly working miracles to make it happen.

Never in recent memory have eyes been so firmly fixed on the pharmaceutical industry. Some of the leading players have become household names as a result of their ground-breaking work on Covid vaccines. The German company BioNTech gained global attention for its work in creating the first vaccine. But away from the headlines, other companies, many of them ACHEMA exhibitors, have played crucial roles in bring them to the world, often anonymously filling crucial niches.

This is not surprising. German companies not only dominate the market in glass vials, they also make the sort of specialist containers critical for distributing the new vaccine. Glassmaker Schott, whose founder Friedrich Otto Schott invented the borosilicate glass from which most pharmaceutical vials are made, has been increasing production to meet demand after a $1bn investment programme for its pharma division last year - the biggest in its history.
The company said it expected to provide enough containers to take two billion doses of the vaccine, although, as spokesman Salvatore Ruggiero pointed out, they are not alone in rising to this challenge. “The good thing is that all the big glass and packaging providers invested huge amounts in expanding production even before the pandemic,” he said.

Within this scenario, Stevanato Group increased its manufacturing capacity globally, securing the supply of glass containers to ensure their availability in time for the first mass vaccination. Even further behind the scenes, specialist in weighing technology and serialisation have been supplying vaccine OEMs and CMOs worldwide with the very best technology and in record times.

In December 2020, the global provider Wipotec received a short-notice order from China to produce and deliver 32 checkweighers in a six week period – delivering the first batch within the first three of them. Fred Köhler, Managing Director, Sales, said at the time: “This was already a huge challenge for us. Under normal circumstances, we need six to nine weeks for project planning, design and production. In a joint effort by all areas, with extra shifts in production, but above all, the utmost commitment of all employees involved, we managed to meet the delivery dates.”

The Italian aseptic equipment producer Steriline emerged as one of the main frontline companies in both Europe and Asia, supplying various lines to several Contract Development and Manufacturing Organisations (CDMOs), filling the mRNA-based vaccine against SARS-CoV-2.
Steriline received its first order from a CDMO last summer. The request was for a complete filling line worth €3.6 million with an insistence that production should start as soon as possible, even though the vaccine hadn’t by then been officially approved for commercial use. Customised projects of this size usually need about a year from order to delivery. This meant staff had no Christmas break. Instead, they were needed to work double shifts. More were eventually taken on with others earmarked to join later.

Chief Commercial Officer, Federico Fumagalli, said: “We had to engage external workers to support our internal experts and we fulfilled the requirements of the project in only five months. When I saw the line assembled and ready for the last acceptance test, I was stunned at the very short time we spent for the engineering and development.” To hasten approval times, the company engaged the use of cameras and other live streaming tools so customers’ acceptance tests (FAT) could be completed remotely to get over travel restrictions.

Another filling line with similar production capacity was quickly under construction for supply in Sweden. More customers from India then came forward to request two of Steriline’s tailor-made lines, producing 18,000 vaccines per hour to be delivered to Asia and Africa.

Mammoth Tasks, record times and giant planes

The Italian company also recently received orders for vaccine production from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca suppliers. Optima and Bausch+Ströbel, companies that comprise the so-called “Packaging Valley” in the Schwäbisch Hall district, were also reporting full order books.

The 2,450-strong Optima Packaging Group reported that they had to use one of the world’s largest cargo planes to fulfill an order for the filling systems from the US pharma developer Catalent. Other equipment was swiftly under construction for other pharmaceutical companies and production capacities had to be quickly reassessed. Spokesman Jan Deininger reported “a lot of additional orders”, adding: “We are expecting many more projects - for quite a while yet.”
Bausch+Ströbel, which is based in Ilshofen, builds machines exclusively for the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. Here, too, systems for COVID-19 vaccines were developed and assembled. Hagen Gehringer, technical director, said pharmaceutical companies spend millions on machines that guarantee the purity and efficiency of their products, but agreed that it takes a year for such a system to be ready. In the circumstances, technicians put them into operation on-site at the customer’s premises, according to Gehringer, who stressed that the pressure was far from over, adding: “We are assuming sustainable growth, at least that lasts for the next two to three years.”

Companies in the cooling equipment business have also been working flat-out to produce high-quality refrigerators – those produced by the likes of Eppendorf Group, Azbil Telstar ThermoTEC, Weilburg and Co. KG Arctiko A/S, Peter Huber Kältemaschinenbau AG and Liebherr Group. Denmark’s Arctiko assures that its biomedical Flexaline refrigerators are designed for the appropriate storage of specimens that require the sort of temperature uniformity that can comply with WHO and CDC requirements that specimens should be stored up to 72 hours after collection at +2 °C to +8 °C.

As well as producing the temperature control technology for Covid-related chemical manufacture for Coronavirus tests, Huber equipment is also used in the production of medical devices and protective equipment. The company also insists it is currently giving “top priority” to inquiries and orders related to the global pandemic.

CEO Daniel Huber is on record as saying: “In the fight against the Coronavirus, time is one of the decisive factors. That is why we are available for short-term device deliveries and support services wherever our products are needed for research or production tasks.”

“We are part of Germany’s critical infrastructure with our product portfolio for research and pharmaceutical production. Many of our clients are working intensively on the development of new drugs, test procedures and vaccines against the Coronavirus.

“Our temperature control units make an important contribution in the research laboratories and production facilities of chemistry, pharmaceutical and medical technology.” He added: “We want to help contain the pandemic with our temperature control solutions as quickly as possible. In the fight against the Coronavirus, time is one of the decisive factors. That is why we are available for short-term device deliveries and support services wherever our products are needed for research or production tasks against the Coronavirus. I am convinced that if we act quickly and responsibly, we will be able to overcome this extraordinary situation together.” The subject is bound to be a topical one at Achema Pulse this month but we should not expect any of these unsung to be boasting about their involvement.

| Original version published in ACHEMA Inspire, June 2021. |


Richard Burton

Editor / World Show Media


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