Pfizer: Lessons Learned from Upscaling Production from 200 Million to 3 Billion Vaccines

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By Michael Larner | 1Q 2023 | IN-6851

Up until the pandemic, Pfizer produced in the region of 200 million vaccines per annum. Once the company’s mRNA vaccine was approved by regulators, attention turned to getting the vaccine to as many people around the world as possible. The urgency to thwart the effects of the pandemic trumped many of the deliberations that occur in calmer times. Today, manufacturers have to cope with the lingering effects of the pandemic, along with geopolitical tensions and economic pressures. Many of the measures taken by Pfizer were only applicable at a time of acute stress, while others have applications going forward. It’s critical for manufacturers and suppliers to understand the difference.

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The Three Big Challenges


Pfizer had three big challenges to get the vaccine to as many individuals as possible. The first challenge was how its partner, BioNTech, could increase the production of lipids (the essential ingredient for the vaccine). The second was how Pfizer was going to have sufficient manufacturing capacity to produce the vaccines. And the third challenge was how to ensure that the vaccine could be delivered in the correct condition regardless of location.

These were three fundamental challenges that, in normal times, would take many months or even years to resolve. Pfizer did not have this luxury and the need to save lives galvanized thinking across the value chain.

Solving the Challenges at Speed


Pfizer resolved the first challenge by applying its heft. mRNA is often produced on a small scale with a limited number of lipid batches. Pfizer tackled this problem by directly helping the firms upgrade their production equipment to scale up their production.

For the second challenge, Pfizer had to do likewise. The firm manufactures vaccines at 35 locations around the world; 10 of those locations were repurposed for mRNA vaccine production. After identifying the facilities, the company’s equipment suppliers that had not worked on producing mRNA vaccines, but had equivalent experience, now had to build the equipment to produce the vaccine. Quick decision-making was necessary; for example, determining the size of vials and dose contained. Much of the equipment in place already produced 2 Milliliter (ml) vials, which is six doses, which Pfizer decided would work in this instance, so the company did not need to re-engineer the equipment. In a typical year, Pfizer produces 200 million vaccines and scaling up to 3 billion required the company to secure supplies of a lot more glass for the vials than previously done. Pfizer appealed to the glass industry to meet the increased needs and glass manufacturers responded to help the vaccine production. Pfizer did the equivalent to secure sufficient supplies of memory chips to solve the third challenge.

With production under way, the next challenge was the supply chain. The mRNA vaccine needs to be kept at -80° Celsius (C). There were not enough facilities around the world that could accommodate that requirement, both in transit and storage. Pfizer was informed that dry ice could help maintain the temperature and was available globally, especially at airports—a critical link in the supply chain. The vaccines were dispatched in containers with dry ice and the containers included trackers, secured by appealing to industry suppliers, to track both the location of the vaccines and their temperature. The final challenge was how to get the vaccine to people in rural locations, especially where the transport infrastructure was lacking. Drones were used to deliver the vaccines to rural areas.

Pfizer was able to take advantage of the company’s clout on the global stage to secure supplies and work expertise, alongside specialist partners. The endeavor was the focus of the chief executive, who gave the staff the instructions to “get the job done” and avoid unnecessary bureaucracy.

What Can Become Business as Normal


In 2023, COVID-19 restrictions are lifting. Pfizer’s business is returning to normal with the company expecting a drop in revenue after the surge emanating from producing the vaccines. Some of the measures taken should be considered going forward, while others should be recognized as relevant in a crisis.

There are different perspectives with regard to helping suppliers ramp up production. Manufacturers operating on a just-in-time basis must validate that their suppliers can meet their requirements. Having transparency makes sense; however, backward integration to ramp up production and ensuring that supplies are readily available does not make sense in normal times. Suppliers will want to retain commercial independence and in the case of pharmaceuticals, it is debatable whether it is healthy for a large drug company to have an influence on suppliers’ production lines. Furthermore, in normal times, suppliers are balancing multiple priorities; the pandemic turned attention to solving the problem, but glass manufacturers and chip suppliers normally serve the needs of multiple sectors.

A lasting effect is that pragmatism saves time. Manufacturers should not overly worry that production line changes are not ideal. The decision on the 2 ml vial is a case in point—it was the best choice for accommodating the existing restrictions and reducing the time to production. Another cultural shift was empowerment, signaling that getting the job done as quickly as possible works in an emergency, but needs guard rails in normal times. Procurement standards and equipment validations need time to work through so that quality and safety concerns are examined. While it’s important for Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) to set the tone during emergencies, they will have other priorities in normal times. On a positive note, a cultural shift to not waste time and empower decisions to be made quickly by appropriately qualified individuals should be the norm.

Another takeaway is embracing innovative technologies. Solutions are readily available, with live asset tracking at a load level through reefer (refrigerated truck) telematics, down to a unit level with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) tags, which should be embraced by logistics firms to track both the location and condition of goods. Furthermore, as seen with developing countries leapfrogging the Personal Computer (PC) era and embracing mobile phone-based service, drones can become integral in last-mile delivery.

Digitalization can help bring out these innovations and COVID-19 brought serious focus to their potential. ABI Research forecasts that pharmaceutical manufacturers will increase their spending on digital technologies by a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 15.4% over the next 10 years and be worth US$5.8 billion in 2033 (please refer to ABI Research’s Digitalization in Process Manufacturing and Extractive Industries market data (MD-IMMF-22)). Meanwhile, ABI Research’s Digital Transformation of the Pharmaceutical Supply Chain report (AN-5733) outlines how Internet of Things (IoT) hardware and Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered applications can automate vehicle and equipment tracking, with spending on reefer monitoring to support pharmaceutical supply chains forecast to reach US$2.9 billion in 2027.



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