The production of the COVID-19 vaccines went from zero to billions of doses in record time, however, a shortage of raw materials, equipment, and personnel have limited the number of doses that can be manufactured.

To tackle these shortages and bottlenecks, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and COVAX partners have launched a ‘marketplace’, a pharmaceutical equivalent of eBay to help manufacturers and suppliers find available materials and be able to trade them in one place.

This marketplace will help match unused materials and surplus stock with the companies that need them, and we have a look at some of the key materials and components shortages that have hampered efforts in the rollout.

1. Giant plastic bags

A dire shortage of large, sterile plastic bags, used to grow vaccine cells inside large vessels called bioreactors, has caused a huge problem for vaccine manufacturers.

The bags, which can hold up to 2,000 litres, are used in the processes of all four types of the vaccine currently in production.

2. Filters and plastic pipes

Another concern has been the availability of filters and plastic pipes, often referred to as single-use assemblies, which are again needed by all four types of the vaccine in production. These plastics tubes are used in many biological processes, but can only be used once.

3. Raw materials

There are some essential ingredients used in the development of cell cultures, needed to produce some of the drug cultures, and these have also been in short supply.

The problem lies with a specialist ingredient called lipid nanoparticles, which are incredibly small particles crucial to the mRNA vaccines produced by BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna.

Before the pandemic, these nanoparticles, which were used to house the drug substance for easier delivery into the body, were only made in much smaller amounts for clinical research, and there have been issues with scaling up production.

4. Trained workers

With the ramping up of vaccine production, there has been a need for skilled people, and industry insiders have reported that some locations have struggled to find enough trained workers to fill the specialist roles.

Some companies have found difficulties transferring personnel between their own sites, but have found it increasingly difficult to move people to another company that has been contracted to manufacture the vaccines.

To help solve the problem, the pharmaceutical industry wants to see workers able to travel between international sites more easily.

5. Intellectual property?

Intellectual property (IP) refers to creations or inventions protected by law through such things as patents, copyrights and trademarks. They aim to ensure the originator is rewarded through profits and that their invention retains quality and integrity.

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has made a move to temporarily lift patent protection for the COVID-19 vaccines, following a campaign in India and South Africa and a group of around 60 countries that claim lifting the IP protections will allow manufacturing expertise to be passed on more easily.

However, vaccine manufacturers say that if a vaccine’s IP is released, it does not mean that new companies would be able to start making the life-saving jabs, as they would still need specialist facilities and the expertise, and add to the competition for the same number of limited materials, resources, and trained staff.

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