A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

From science to syringe: COVID-19 vaccines are miracles of science and supply chains

Single vaccine dose made up of more than 280 components, requires three manufacturing plants to produce

A single dose of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine is barely enough to cover the average pinky nail but is made up of more than 280 components and requires at least three manufacturing plants to produce.

By the time that dose is injected, it has travelled to at least six different cities in four countries, across the Atlantic Ocean twice, and monitored by a 24-hour watchtower in Iceland every step of the way.

A marvel of both science and supply-chain heroics takes the vaccine from the factory floor to the arms of grateful patients all over the world.

“It’s really very complex,” said Germain Morin, Pfizer’s vice-president in charge of global supply chains for the company’s rare-disease medications and vaccines.

The messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccines being made by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, as well as Moderna, are a novel technology that before COVID-19 had never been approved for widespread use in humans.

While DNA is the large and complex molecule that stores all of genetic coding that makes us who we are, RNA carries individual pieces of that code out into the body with the instructions on how to carry out the body’s work.

In the case of mRNA vaccines, they are carrying the genetic code for part of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which teaches our bodies to mount a defence against the virus.

A year ago, the materials for these vaccines were being made for research purposes only, enough for maybe a few hundred doses at a time. Now Pfizer expects to pump out two billion doses by the end of this year.

It has made scaling up the manufacturing process a herculean feat, said Morin. There are 25 different suppliers involved, spanning 19 different countries. Some of them, said Morin, were making milligrams of liquid at the start. Then they were asked to make kilograms of it, and finally hundreds of kilograms.

The 475,000 doses Canada received last week began their lives before Christmas. Morin said it used to take four months to make a single dose of the vaccine, which is officially called BNT162b2. Morin said the process has recently been streamlined to half that time.

Every dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is born in a Pfizer lab in Chesterfield, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis. That’s where small DNA molecules called plasmids are made with the beginnings of the code for the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.

It takes about two weeks, followed by a quality assurance process. Every step of production has quality checks and rechecks, from the bags and boxes used to store and transport the vaccine components to the temperature in the lab and the protective clothing worn by any workers.

Then comes the first major chill, as the plasmids are put in bags and frozen to that famous ultralow temperature Pfizer’s product needs: -80C.

From Missouri, the plasmids are shipped to two labs, one a Pfizer facility in Andover, Mass., and another a BioNTech facility in Germany, where they are used to make the mRNA.

A single batch of mRNA takes about four days to make, in a high-tech process with numerous enzymes and chemicals. The mRNA is then frozen again and shipped off for finishing.

READ MORE: NDP, Liberals make free COVID-19 vaccine promise on B.C. election trail

In the U.S. that happens in Kalamazoo, Mich., and for Canada’s doses, currently made in Europe, they go to Puurs, Belgium, Pfizer’s biggest plant in the world.

Messenger RNA is not a very stable product and will disintegrate quickly if not protected, so every bit of mRNA is encased in a tiny amount of fat called a lipid nanoparticle.

“Imagine a very, very small egg, so a very small eggshell of lipids that would protect the mRNA,” said Morin. “This is part of the magic of making this vaccine as well.”

Over the course of three or four more days the mRNA gets its lipid coating, and is filled into vials containing enough vaccine for six doses. The vials are then packed into boxes, and immediately put into “those famous freezers” which turn the lipid-coated mRNA molecules into mini blocks of ultracold ice.

“This was, by the way, one of the challenges,” said Morin. “You can imagine that those freezers are not very common in the world. Laboratories buying them would typically buy them one or two at a time. We went to the suppliers and the first time we’ve asked for 650 of them in one shot, and then we went for more after that.”

The vials stay in those freezers for two to three weeks, while every lot is tested with more than 40 different quality-control measures.

Then come the thermal shipping boxes Pfizer and BioNTech developed for this vaccine. Each vial is packed into a tray about the size of a pizza box with 195 vials total. Five trays are packaged together into the special box, which is filled with dry ice, and sealed.

Every box contains a tracking unit to know its location and internal temperature at all times. A control site in Iceland monitors the boxes, which are all uniquely labelled. If any box records a problem between Belgium and the delivery site, it will be investigated and most likely discarded.

Morin said at first there were many concerns about the complexity of the freezer requirements but the supply chain has been so successful that only one per cent of the product around the world has been lost because of temperature concerns.

Pfizer contracted with UPS to deliver the boxes. Those are picked up by UPS in Belgium, and sent through Germany and Kentucky on their way to Canada.

UPS delivers the batches to dozens of delivery sites in each province, where provincial health officials take over possession and prepare to inject them into arms.

Moderna hasn’t released as many details about its manufacturing process, but has said the vaccine is largely produced for Canada in Switzerland, sent to Spain to be mixed with a diluent and filled into vials, and then shipped to a warehouse in Belgium.

Canada has hired FedEx and Innomar Strategies to manage the shipping and distribution of Moderna’s and all other vaccines except Pfizer-BioNTech’s.

Guy Payette, the president of Innomar, said they too use specially designed boxes. Moderna’s vaccine doesn’t have to be frozen as deeply but does have to be kept at about -20C.

The other vaccines Canada is likely to get will mostly need to be kept at about 6 C.

Payette said each box is also labelled and tracked with a GPS and thermal sensor. The shipments arrive at Innomar’s warehouse, where workers repackage them to match the quantities being sent to each province.

He said except for one spot in northern British Columbia, the trackers have worked beautifully. Where they did not, due to the altitude, boxes are equipped with a second device with data that can be downloaded later.

He said so far, the temperature has been fine and all products delivered successfully.

Those involved in the vaccine process have expressed awe at the speed with which everything turned around. Moderna’s vaccine was in clinical trials less than two months after the SARS-CoV-2 virus was fully sequenced.

Pfizer and BioNTech signed a partnership agreement in March 2020, and 266 days later the vaccine was approved in the United Kingdom. More than 50 countries have since followed suit and more than 100 million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine have now been distributed.

It’s a pace of development the company has never seen in its 173-year history.

“Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, not even close,” said Morin.

He said most products take three to five years to get this far.

“We’re very proud,” he said. “Every new market that we launch is a celebration.”

He said when the first Canadian was vaccinated on Dec. 14, “I had goosebumps.”

Coronavirusvaccines

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A Keremeos family lost their home after a fire shortly before midnight on April 13. No injuries were reported. (Contributed)
Keremeos home destroyed in late-night fire

The family inside was unharmed

An Interior Health nurse administers Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines to seniors and care aids in Kelowna on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. (Phil McLachlan/Kelowna Capital News)
105 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health

Just over 8,000 new vaccine doses administered in the region for a total of 158,000 to date

Bad Tattoo owner Lee Auger and head brewmaster Liam Hutcheson welcomed Firehall Brewery owner Syd Ruhland into their brew-room to make a massive batch of his hit Backdraft Blonde Ale Tuesday, April 2021. (Firehall Brewery / Facebook)
Drinking buddies: Penticton brewery steps up to help out smaller competitor

Firehall Brewery of Oliver needed larger equipment to meet demand; Bad Tattoo was happy to help

Campfires are allowed within the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen, but open burning season comes to an end April 15 at midnight. (Black Press file photo)
Open burning season ends in Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen

Campfires are permitted, following provincial guidelines

Send your letter to the editor via email to news@summerlandreview.com. Please included your first and last name, address, and phone number.
LETTER: Name is spelled incorrectly

For 100 years, the Garnett name has been spelled incorrectly as Garnet

Arlene Howe holds up a picture of her son, Steven, at a memorial event for drug overdose victims and their families at Kelowna’s Rotary Beach Park on April 14. Steven died of an overdose at the age of 32 on Jan. 31, 2015. (Aaron Hemens - Kelowna Capital News)
Moms Stop the Harm members placed crosses Wednesday morning, April 14, on Rotary Beach in memory of children lost to drug overdoses. (Aaron Hemens - Capital News)
Kelowna mothers remember children lost to the opioid crisis

It has been five years since illicit drug deaths was announced a public health emergency

A man wears a protective face covering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as he walks past the emergency entrance of Vancouver General Hospital in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
COVID-19 spike in B.C. could overwhelm B.C. hospitals: modelling group

There are 397 people are in hospital due to the virus, surpassing a previous high of 374 seen in December

A deep cut on a humpback whale is shown in this recent handout photo in the Vancouver area. A conservation organization is warning boaters to be extra careful to prevent further harm to an injured humpback whale swimming in the Vancouver area. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Ocean Wise, Vanessa Prigollini *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Boaters urged to use caution around hurt humpback off Vancouver

Ocean Wise says watchers first noticed the wound 3 days ago and believe it was caused by a vessel strike

Ron Rauch and his wife Audrey are photographed at their home in Victoria, Friday, March 5, 2021. Their daughter Lisa Rauch died on Christmas Day 2019 when a tactical officer with the Victoria Police Department shot her in the back of the head with plastic bullets after barricading herself in a room that was on fire. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. families push for changes as special committee examines provincial Police Act

Solicitor General Mike Farnworth acknowledged the need to update the legislation last year

Major-General Dany Fortin, left, looks on as Minister of Public Services and Procurement Anita Anand provides an update on the COVID-19 pandemic, in Ottawa, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. The Public Health Agency of Canada has set aside up to $5 billion to pay for COVID-19 vaccines. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada negotiating contracts to secure COVID-19 booster shots for next year: Anand

Most of Canada’s current vaccine suppliers are already testing new versions against variants

Demonstrators at the legislature on April 14 called on the province to decriminalize drug possession and provide widespread access to regulated safe supply across B.C. (Jake Romphf/News Staff)
Rally calls for decriminalization, safe supply on 5th anniversary of overdose emergency declaration

From 2016 to the end of February, 7,072 British Columbians died due to overdose

Naloxone
Op/Ed: Interior Health CEO speaks on five years of strides and challenges in overdose crisis

In 2020, close to 4,000 people across IH had access to opioid medications

Somewhere in the pack being celebrated by his teammates is Vernon Vipers forward Zack Tonelli, who scored in overtime Wednesday afternoon, April 14, to give the Snakes a 6-5 win over the Salmon Arm Silverbacks in B.C. Hockey League pod play at Kal Tire Place. (Liza Mazurek - Vernon Vipers Photography)
Vernon Vipers bite Salmon Arm Silverbacks in OT

Snakes blow 5-3 third-period lead, rally in extra time for 6-5 pod play result over rivals

(Government of Canada)
Liberal MP caught stark naked during House of Commons video conference

William Amos, in Quebec, appeared on the screens of his fellow members of Parliament completely naked

Most Read