Scientists are racing to discover a COVID-19 vaccine, yet next will come the challenge of making and distributing billions of doses as fast as possible. The pharmaceutical industry has never done anything like it.
A recent invention by Corning – a radical new kind of glass composition for vaccine vials – might typically attract little attention outside the pharmaceutical industry. But now it stands to play a significant role in getting more vaccines to more people as quickly as possible.
The glass, called Corning Valor? Glass, took nearly 10 years to develop and bring to market, and is ready to play its part in the global effort to defeat COVID-19. Valor Glass solves problems that have limited the production speed of vaccines for decades, and it could help manufacturers nearly double the pace of filling vials. At the same time, Valor Glass can eliminate a vexing safety problem: traditional vaccine vials can delaminate, or shed tiny flakes of glass in the vaccine, which can lead to adverse effects for those receiving the vaccine.
Several pharmaceutical companies are currently evaluating Valor Glass for use. Most recently, Pfizer signed a long-term purchase agreement with Corning. Pfizer is one of at least 125 entities chasing a COVID vaccine. Recognizing the potential impact of Valor Glass, the U.S. government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) has granted Corning $204 million to ramp up manufacturing of Valor vials.
Valor’s role goes deep into the heart of how vaccines get manufactured and then delivered to doctors and clinicians.
Once scientists create a vaccine, the vaccine has to be made in large batches – much as beer, for example, first has to be brewed in vats before getting packaged and shipped. Some vaccines in the U.S. are made by growing vaccine viruses in eggs – a process that’s been around for 70 years. Newer methods, approved in the past decade, are cell-based production and recombinant (or synthetic) production. Any of the methods result in vaccine viruses suspended in a liquid.
Just as beer has to be bottled, vaccines have to be put into small vials that contain anywhere from one to 10 doses each, then sealed and packaged for distribution. That’s done in highly automated factories, with machines filling and capping vials and the vials zooming through assembly lines, rubbing and bumping against each other.
That rubbing and bumping of vials is the catch. For as long as vaccines have been made, they’ve typically been packaged in vials made of what’s called borosilicate glass. But borosilicate vials can haunt a vaccine factory. Friction on the outer surface can make the vials bunch and cause back-ups – not unlike a traffic jam – in the machinery, leading to damage and breakage. The glass can also flake off on the inside – called delamination – when this occurs, the particles of glass can contaminate the vaccine.
So vaccine manufacturers have had to choose between two difficult options: either run the line more slowly so the vials bump and rub less, or speed up production and run the risk of glass-related problems, including the possibility of those that could force the whole line to be shut down or result in recalls of vaccines already shipped. All in all, the conventional glass can cost the industry hundreds of millions of dollars a year in lost production.