The Vaccine: A Manufacturer’s View
These days, everyone is talking about Covid-19 vaccines. It’s a particularly hot topic here in Canada because our supply of vaccines coming from a Pfizer plant in Belgium has been significantly reduced this month. While there are healthcare, political and business aspects to the discussion, I can’t help thinking about this vaccine issue from the perspective of a manufacturer. And that leads to some pretty eye-opening perspectives.
Pfizer’s vaccine supply to Canada is being produced in a plant located in Puurs, Belgium. This is a manufacturing facility that was, until this year, producing 400 million units annually. Having become the centre of Pfizer’s pandemic response in Europe, it is now expected to deliver about 1.5 billion doses of the Covid-19 vaccine by the end of 2021. Consider that the Pfizer vaccine was just approved in December. That’s a 400% increase in output with next to no lead time.
Canada’s supply reduction is a result of modifications being made at the plant in Belgium to increase capacity. To achieve a 400% increase in output, there is no doubt that new machinery would need to be added and doing that without impacting output is impossible. Having seen what happens when we add machinery to our plant in Toronto, I can only imagine the disruption being caused by adding equipment in Belgium. Frankly, it’s impressive that supply is only being cut by 25%.
The investment Pfizer is making in this facility is enormous. Production equipment is very expensive and very specialized. There are tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars of machinery on the floor in Belgium. In addition, there are over 2,000 workers at the plant in Puurs. If I lie awake at night thinking about the capital investments we are making at Algood, the people at Pfizer must never sleep.
This is a facility that is running 24/7 where every single unit produced is precious. There is no room for any delays and yet, as a manufacturer, you know there will almost certainly be glitches. All it takes is one simple bearing to fail and a production line can be down for hours, if not days. Production designers must come with up a plan that will meet targets despite those inevitable contingencies.
Beyond the equipment and the output, there are many important considerations. For example, 1.5 billion doses annually is over 4 million doses daily. You need an immense amount of space to store even one day’s production before it is shipped. Now, add to the challenge the fact that the Pfizer vaccine must be kept at -70ºC, which requires specialized freezers. In addition to all that, the facility must be kept perfectly clean to preserve the sterility of the vaccines and all Covid precautions must be maintained. It makes storing a day’s worth of caster production look like a walk in the park.
The supply chain logistics are mind-boggling. Besides the chemical ingredients in the vaccine, there are bottles, protective syringe caps and labels that must be available in never-ending supply. Any supply chain gap has the potential to halt production. While Pfizer has achieved some vertical integration, managing the supply chain is a thankless job.
Finally, I think about the pressure being put on Pfizer. Its CEO is fielding calls from political and healthcare leaders, business partners and investors while presiding over the efficient operation of the company. I recall the pressure we were under at Algood supplying casters in the early days of the fight against Covid. Fielding demanding and panic-filled calls at literally every hour of the day, the stress was almost unbearable. I can’t imagine how that effect is multiplied when you are supplying the world and my respect goes out to those leading Pfizer.
You see, while there are many facets to the discussion about Covid vaccines, there are some that can only be seen by a manufacturer.