In Lower Austria, more than twelve percent of people have so far received a first dose of the coronavirus vaccination, across Austria it is just under 14 percent. While the vaccination coverage is already significantly higher in other countries, Austria is lagging behind. One of the reasons is that there have been repeated delays in delivery of the coronavirus vaccines recently.
25 million CoV vaccination doses from Klosterneuburg
Therefore, politicians repeatedly called for production in Austria to be stepped up. You don’t have to look beyond national borders, however; a view of Klosterneuburg (Tulln district) to the Polymun company is enough. “We made about ten million cans for Biontech / Pfizer last year 2020. This year there will be around 25 million cans in the first half of the year, ”said Polymun managing director Dietmar Katinger.
Put simply, Polymun brings together the raw materials that are necessary for the mRNA vaccine. So-called lipid nanoparticles are produced from mRNA and lipids. Basically, this is the finished vaccine. “The vaccine goes out formulated, but in bulk and not in small bottles. That takes place at another manufacturer, ”explains Andreas Wagner, technical manager at Polymun.
Vaccine production as a complex undertaking
The reason why the vaccines are not also bottled in Klosterneuburg has to do with the fact that there are complex, sequential production processes in vaccine manufacture. Each manufacturer has different expertise. Vaccine production can essentially be thought of as three production steps.
In a first step, companies produce the respective ingredients. These can be active ingredients, in the case of mRNA vaccines it is the mRNA, i.e. the blueprint for a certain virus characteristic. The second step is the so-called formulation. Companies like Polymun produce the finished vaccine from the mRNA and other raw materials. In a third and final step, companies that specialize in the filling and delivery of vaccines come into play.
76 percent of the vaccines come from Europe
As a rule, all of these processes do not take place in one country, but in many countries, with Europe playing a pioneering role. According to Renée Gallo-Daniel, President of the Austrian Association of Vaccine Manufacturers (ÖVIH), 76 percent of vaccines are already produced in Europe.
Gallo-Daniel considers the debate about increasing the production of vaccines in Austria to be “sensible”, among other things because it would strengthen Austria as a business location. But you always have to keep an eye on the complex production processes. “When I say I want to have Covid vaccine production in Austria, then we have to discuss, what do I want? Do I want to do everything or do I want parts of it? ”Said the ÖVIH President. Parts of the production are already taking place with Polymun in Lower Austria.
Pfizer produces vaccines in Orth an der Donau
In addition to Polymun, a pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, also has a production site in Lower Austria, namely in Orth an der Donau (Gänserndorf district). Two vaccines are made here: a vaccine to protect against meningococci of group C and a vaccine to protect against TBE, this is generally better known as the tick vaccine. Every year Pfizer produces between 15 and 25 million vaccine doses in Orth an der Donau to meet global needs, with around one year going by from the start of production to the time the vaccine is available and approved.
In principle, it is “desirable” to also produce coronavirus vaccines in Orth an der Donau, says Martin Dallinger, Managing Director of Pfizer Manufacturing Austria GmbH. To do this, however, the entire production would have to be rebuilt and the employees retrained. “The bottom line would be that I could no longer produce the current vaccines – TBE and meningococcal disease – and that in turn would mean that the vaccines will no longer be available in a year from now,” explains Dallinger. The consequence would be a bottleneck in the two vaccines and the risk that diseases such as TBE or meningococci would recur.
CoV vaccines only “additionally, not instead of”
“Of course it would be of interest to us to have additional vaccine production in Orth. However, the scenario must be such that we do not produce instead, but in addition. That means additional space, additional buildings and additional infrastructure that would have to be built in parallel, ”said the Pfizer managing director. Basically, the expertise of Pfizer in Orth an der Donau lies in the production of active ingredients. Filling and delivery are “not part of our business,” says Dallinger.
In general, Lower Austria is likely to continue to play an important role in the production of vaccines in the future. For example, Polymun is also working with the vaccine manufacturer CureVac, which plans to launch a coronavirus vaccine on the market soon.
At the same time, the discussion about stronger domestic vaccine production could also gain momentum. “We have to look into the future,” says ÖVIH President Gallo-Daniel. “We won’t get rid of the coronavirus, it will continue to accompany us.” According to Gallo-Daniel, however, an interaction between the manufacturers and politicians is needed in order to set up further vaccine production, for example about opportunities for cooperation, funding and bonuses to sound out.