Euro technology Chasing a virus, glass shortages, and cold storage: 4 top execs leading the coronavirus vaccine race reveal how they’re tackling the greatest challenges standing in their way

Euro technology Chasing a virus, glass shortages, and cold storage: 4 top execs leading the coronavirus vaccine race reveal how they’re tackling the greatest challenges standing in their way

Euro technology

  • A coronavirus vaccine faces several major challenges to actually end the pandemic, top pharmaceutical executives said Thursday. 
  • Execs for four major pharmaceutical companies working on vaccines — Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and GlaxoSmithKline — outlined key problems.
  • A vaccine needs to be tested, mass-produced and globally distributed to halt the coronavirus crisis.
  • Each of these steps will require efforts that will test the World
  • The companies plan to chase the virus around the World, package multiple doses into each glass vial, and work with global nonprofits on a fair distribution plan. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A widely available coronavirus immunization faces a slew of challenges that will test the World over the next year, top pharmaceutical executives said Thursday. 

Determining if a vaccine candidate actually works in humans is just the first step. Other significant hurdles include mass-producing an effective vaccine and then distributing it around the World

Four leaders at some of the largest drugmakers in the World — Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and GlaxoSmithKline — revealed how they are now planning for these challenges at a Thursday press conference hosted by an industry trade group.

Across the pharma and biotech industries, dozens of companies are aiming to develop a coronavirus vaccine in record time. There are 125 ongoing vaccine research efforts, with 10 now being tested in humans, according to the World Health Organization. A Business Insider review found nearly 30 experimental vaccines are slated to be in clinical trials by the end of 2020.

In condensing the develpment timeline, these companies are now simultaneously thinking through issues that will arise from each stage of vaccine development: how to rapidly test a candidate in humans, how to manufacture hundreds of millions, if not billions, of doses, and how to distribute an effective vaccine to the World.

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Read more: The untold story of Moderna as the biotech’s coronavirus vaccine faces a test that could make it one of the most consequential startups of all time 

Euro technology Problem #1: Chasing the virus

First and foremost, researchers need to vet the potential vaccines to see if any of them actually work. A good vaccine will have to clear two bars. First, it will have to be safe and tolerable for healthy humans to take, without causing serious side effects. Secondly, it has to

either prevent infection, or at a minimum, reduce the likelihood of severe disease. 

In order to demonstrate a vaccine works, researchers need to test large numbers of people in areas where the virus is actively spreading. As clinical trials often require months to plan and run, that is turning into a major issue for testing a vaccine against a fast-moving virus. 

euro technology AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot

AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

“The problem we will all have, I think, is we are running against time a little bit,” AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot said.

AstraZeneca has partnered on a vaccine candidate developed by University of Oxford researchers. Soriot added that there will soon be data available from the first phase of its UK-based clinical trial, which is now working to expand into a 5,000-person trial.

Recently, the researchers running the UK study have warned there’s now a 50% chance it won’t be able to determine if the vaccine works because of the dropping rate of new infections in Britain. 

“Very soon, the disease intensity will be low and it will become difficult, so we have to move quickly,” Soriot said. 

The Oxford candidate will also be tried in several other trials around the globe. Soriot said studies in Kenya, South Africa, Brazil and several other countries will start soon. A 30,000-person trial in the US will likely start in July, he added.

The other executives also raised this concern, including Johnson & Johnson Chief Scientific Officer Paul Stoffels. J&J, the largest healthcare company in the World, is aiming to start human trials of a vaccine in September to be ready for potential emergency use in early 2021.

euro technology Dr. Paul Stoffels J&J Johnson & Johnson

Johnson & Johnson Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Paul Stoffels.

Johnson & Johnson

“We plan to do two large Phase 3 studies, as typically is required in the World to get to full approval,” Stoffels said. “Hopefully that can be done in the north. If not, we’ll have to go to the south.”

Read more: Scientists are racing to create a coronavirus vaccine that can halt the pandemic in its tracks. Here are the top 3 candidates from Moderna, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca aiming to be ready this fall.

Euro technology Problem #2: Running out of glass

euro technology doctor vial


Before knowing if the vaccines work, the leading programs are already ramping up manufacturing capability.

A critical constraint to producing hundreds of millions or billions of doses in such a short amount of time will be a final portion of the manufacturing process of putting the serum into glass vials. 

Several of the executives raised concerns about simply running out of glass. Pfizer’s Bourla said they are now talking with government officials to see if they could put five or 10 doses into a single vial. Traditionally, vaccines are delivered in single-dose vials. 

Bourla said this could “resolve a significant part of the bottleneck in manufacturing.”

J&J’s Stoffels added that it will “probably be essential” to put multiple doses into each vial. 

“The capacity is not there to do it in the billions otherwise,” he added.

Euro technology Problem #3: Distributing a vaccine, particularly to lower-income areas of the World

euro technology oxford vaccine group trial

The first human trial of the hAdOx1 nCoV-19. vaccine from the Oxford Vaccine Group.

YouTube/University of Oxford

In working through the first two problems, the World could have hundreds of millions, or potentially billions, of doses of an effective vaccine. But there still needs to be a plan on how it will be delivered to people across the World

In particular, there’s been a rising fear of ‘vaccine nationalism,’ where each nation’s leaders will try to secure a vaccine for its country first instead of pursuing a global approach. 

GlaxoSmithKline CEO Emma Walmsley said the drug industry is “committed to access,” in particular by working with a new World Health Organization group called the ACT Accelerator. She emphasized the role of leading nonprofits like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and the global vaccine organization Gavi.

euro technology Emma Walmsley, CEO Designate of GlaxoSmithKline is seen in this undated photograph released in London, Britain, on February 1, 2src17. Courtesy of GlaxoSmithKline/HANDOUT via REUTERS

GlaxoSmithKline CEO Emma Walmsley

Thomson Reuters

“That is going to be a mechanism with multiple stakeholders, whether it’s heads of state or organizations like CEPI, and the Gates Foundation, Gavi and others, and the WHO of course, where we can actually look at these principles of access,” Walmsley said. 

But demand is still expected to vastly exceed supply for coronavirus vaccines. This will be an even tougher challenge for some vaccines that require cold storage. 

Pfizer’s Bourla said its experimental vaccine will likely go to the “Western World” first, mainly because it needs to be stored at -8 degrees Celsius (about 18 degrees Fahrenheit).

“It’s a technology that is not very convenient for Africa, for example, because they will likely lack basic infrastructure that can be applicable,” Bourla said, adding Pfizer would work on a second wave of products that wouldn’t require extreme temperatures. 

AstraZeneca’s Soriot said the US government has effectively placed an advance order for 300 million doses of its experimental vaccine, as part of $1.2 billion in funding made available to the company by the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.

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