Swiss factory rushes to prepare for Moderna Covid-19 vaccine

Lonza is building three vaccine production lines in Visp, canton Valais, at a cost of $210 million (CHF191 million) to supply 300 million doses annually. Keystone / Olivier Maire

The Lonza plant at Visp, deep in the Swiss Alps, is a hive of activity. Workers are racing to set up production lines to be able to start making a Covid-19 vaccine for US firm Moderna later this year.

This content was published on October 7, 2020 - 12:59
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The 2,000-square-metre space in the new Lonza factory is still a construction site. But Torsten Schmidt, who heads the company’s Visp facility in canton Valais, southwestern Switzerland, is confident.

“Everything will be ready to produce the first doses in December,” he told reporters on Tuesday.

The Swiss pharma company is building three vaccine production lines in Visp at a cost of $210 million (CHF191 million) to supply 300 million doses annually for the rest of the world. In parallel, new production lines at Lonza’s site in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, aim to start making vaccine ingredients exclusively for the US in November.

Torsten Schmidt, head of the "Ibex" vaccine production line at Lonza's plant in Visp, where part of the Moderna mRNA Covid-19 vaccine will be produced. October 6, 2020. Keystone / Olivier Maire

A project of this size normally takes two years, Schmidt explains, but due to the urgency of the pandemic they have had only eight months to complete it. Three teams have been working round the clock, seven days a week.

“The delivery of the equipment was critical,” Schmidt told Reuters. “You typically wait 12 months; you’re talking here about 4-5 months. In the end, the CEO has been talking to the CEOs of suppliers to get the equipment delivered.”

Meanwhile, Lonza is still hiring some of the 200 workers needed to operate the production lines at the “Ibex” district in Visp, which will comprise six buildings when it is finished.

View of the Lonza site at Visp, canton Valais, in southern Switzerland. Keystone / Jean-christophe Bott

This race against the clock takes place as scientists and drug companies push ahead in their search for a successful Covid-19 vaccine. There is no approved vaccine yet, but 11 are reportedly in advanced trials, including from Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna, whose candidate relies on technology never previously approved that enlists human cells to help trigger an immune response.

The Lonza press visit coincided on Tuesday with the announcement by Swiss drug authority Swissmedic that it had begun evaluating a rival candidate: the “Covid-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca”. It is the first time that a drugmaker has presented a coronavirus vaccine for approval in Switzerland. AstraZeneca, which developed the vaccine in collaboration with the University of Oxford, submitted its application to Swissmedic at the start of October.

Ingredients

Lonza has a ten-year contract to supply ingredients to Moderna, including for up to one billion doses annually of Covid-19 vaccine. However, the vaccine has yet to receive formal approval from US or Swiss regulators.

The ingredients include a synthetic version of messenger RNA (mRNA), genetic material, which is packed inside tiny fat droplets called nanolipids. This then instructs human cells to make a non-replicating form of the coronavirus’s spike protein and trigger an immune response in the body.

The ingredients will be frozen at -70° Celsius and then shipped from Visp to Spain’s Laboratorios Farmacéuticos Rovi SA for “fill and finish”, the final stage of manufacture.

Swiss doses

Switzerland has signed an agreement with Moderna to secure early access to the Covid-19 vaccine the US biotech company is developing, it said in August.

Switzerland will get 4.5 million doses of the vaccine, enough to vaccinate 2.25 million people if, as expected, two doses are needed per patient.

In parallel to this agreement, the Swiss government is continuing talks with other companies in what it calls a “diversified approach” to gaining access to a vaccine. It also continues to support multilateral projects for the fair distribution of a future cure, it writes.

The government has earmarked CHF300 million for the procurement of a vaccine.

In a recent poll carried out in Switzerland, half of the people questioned said they would get vaccinated against Covid-19 if an efficient vaccine were available. Men would be more likely to do so than women.

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