Supply chains were hit hard early in the pandemic. Disinfectant couldn’t be produced because of a lack of bottles, tests couldn’t be processed because nasal swabs or PPE wasn’t available, the decline of passenger air traffic hit commercial delivery and so forth. I worry about forthcoming stresses on the vaccine supply chain. Billions of doses of vaccine will be demanded in the next year and a lot will depend on complicated supply lines including cold storage, air traffic, styrofoam, vials, bags, needles and many other inputs. Companies and the awesome team at CEPI (give them all a Nobel prize) are planning for vials and needles and other inputs but there are many non-obvious inputs higher up in the supply chain that also need shoring up.
Writing in Bloomberg, Scott Duke Kominers and I look at some of the odder inputs to vaccines like horseshoe crab blood, shark livers and the vaccinia capping enyzme, VCE. We are actually not too worried about horseshoe crab blood and shark livers as these are used in other industries. Shark livers, for example, are used to produce a lot of cosmetics so we should be able to divert supply as needed. VCE, however, is rarer.
DNA and mRNA vaccine technologies have shown promising results, and two of the leading vaccine contenders, from Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc., use mRNA technology. But mRNA has never been used to produce a commercial vaccine for humans, let alone at scale. And scaling these technologies may not be easy. In particular, mRNA degrades rapidly. To prevent this, it must be “capped” by a very rare substance called vaccinia capping enzyme.
Just over 10 pounds of this VCE is enough to produce a hundred million doses of an mRNA vaccine — but the current manufacturing processes for VCE require so much bioreactor capacity that making 10 pounds would cost about $1.4 billion. More important, global bioreactor capacity cannot support production at that level while also producing other vaccines and cancer-fighting drugs.
If we work hard now, we may be able to find more efficient means of producing VCE. Expanding bioreactor production and repurposing bioreactors from existing large-scale industrial applications will also help to lessen the pressure on the supply chains for multiple types of vaccines.
In addition to supply chains per se we also face the problem that companies are not raising prices enough. Ironically, this means that we need more public investment.
Of course, we might think that private companies would have incentives to coordinate supply chains themselves — and to some extent, they are doing so. But many have pledged to keep their vaccine prices close to costs, both out of altruism and because they may fear public backlash (or legal action) if they’re perceived as “price gouging” in the middle of a pandemic. And if companies don’t stand to profit much from Covid-19 vaccines, then they don’t have much incentive to invest in increasing capacity. In short: If prices can’t rise, then the only way to encourage companies to invest more in production is to reduce their costs — and that means we need public investment.
More generally, it’s not too late to be building more vaccine capacity and to repurpose bioreactor capacity from non-GMP sources, perhaps including veterinary and food sources. There are lots of vaccines in development. The science is promising. We need to take action now so that we can deliver on that promise.
Read the whole thing.