13th Dec, 2020. Trucks drive through the streets of Portage, Michigan, home to the largest Pfizer factory in the United States. On board: the first doses of the Covid-19 vaccine designed by the American pharmaceutical giant. After almost a year, is the health crisis coming to an end? It is in any case the hope of the curious who came to cheer the convoy at the edge of the road. “We were very proud that a local factory contributed to the solution against the pandemic”, remembers today Jim Rutherford, former head of the health department of the county of Kalamazoo, where Portage is located.
The episode came to conclude an unprecedented industrial sprint. Never had a vaccine been produced so quickly – a few months compared to several years in normal times – against the backdrop of a global health crisis.
It all started in January 2020, when Dr. Ugur Sahin, co-founder of the German laboratory BioNTech, read a study in the scientific journal The Lancet that Covid-19 will spread around the world. With his wife, Özlem Türeci, he is working on several messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines, molecules that act directly on cells to produce antigens.
In March, he called Kathrin Jansen, the vaccine research and development manager at Pfizer, the company BioNTech has been collaborating with since 2018 on a flu serum. She is at the headquarters of the multinational in New York, the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States.
A first historic success with penicillin
An immigrant scientist like him, the German is not the only European person at Pfizer that Ugur Sahin is close to. Group CEO Albert Bourla, a Greek who spent five years in France for the company, is also a friend, despite tensions between their home countries. In March 2020, the manager launched a challenge to his teams: release a vaccine by October.
The slope seems steep, especially since no mRNA vaccine has been marketed so far. But Pfizer is not at its first crazy bet. Founded in 1849 by chemist Charles Pfizer and his cousin, the company had successfully responded to the US government’s call to mass-produce penicillin to treat servicemen during World War II.
She had found a way to make large quantities of citric acid, an ingredient in penicillin. “At the time, more soldiers died from infections than from bombs. Penicillin foreshadowed Pfizer’s coup against Covid”, says Robert Shook, author of a book on “miracle drugs”.
Current leader in pharmaceutical research
Subsequently, the company will develop other very lucrative products, such as Lipitor (against cholesterol) and Viagra (erectile dysfunction). “Pfizer has become the undisputed leader in pharmaceutical research”, sums up Edward Scolnick, ex-president of research at Merck Laboratories, where Kathrin Jansen worked between 1992 and 2004. “They hired brilliant people who were ready to take on big challenges. I knew they would win the Covid race. »
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From the starting line, the company, of which 17,000 of the 78,000 employees are mobilized by the vaccine, makes several key decisions. While testing four candidate vaccines, it is reorganizing its most important factories – in Portage, therefore, and in Puurs, Belgium. Objective: to produce in mass and just in time to minimize stocks.
If it chooses to outsource part of its activities, in particular to avoid slowing down the manufacture of its other drugs, it keeps most of the production in-house to control logistics. In the Portage plant, formulation laboratories have been set up and additional bottle filling equipment installed. Later, she herself will produce the lipids needed for the vaccine.
A very risky bet
In the spring of 2020, the teams have only one certainty: the hypothetical future mixture will have to be kept at -70°C, so hundreds of fridges are installed on the site. Pfizer engineers design special crates, full of company-made dry ice, for transport, with technology to monitor the temperature at all times.
“Usually, the process is done in sequence: testing, internal and external validation, marketing, production… Pfizer carried out all these phases simultaneously. Which is very risky. If something went wrong during the clinical trials, they would have wasted a lot of time and money,” analyzes William McLaury, professor at Rutgers University and former logistics manager at Novartis.
“All the companies involved in this race invested in their means of production without delay, but Pfizer was more efficient because it already had the network and the know-how, unlike Moderna, a start-up which never had anything marketed before its vaccine”, adds Julie Swann, professor at North Carolina State University and specialist in medical logistics.
100 million doses of public pre-order
With nearly 52 billion dollars (46.5 billion euros) in revenue in 2019, the company had the means to achieve its ambitions. She even refused to participate in Operation Warp Speed, a colossal investment program designed by Donald Trump’s White House to speed up research and distribution. The assumed goal of Albert Bourla: to avoid bureaucracy. “We invested at risk from March 2020 and assumed the development and production costs of the vaccine alone, without benefiting from public or private subsidies”, says Pfizer.
Public power has not remained inactive, however. By July 2020, before the end of clinical trials, the US government had ordered 100 million doses. It also lifted regulatory constraints – on driving times for truckers to facilitate delivery… And BioNTech received 375 million euros from the German government.
On December 11, 2020, the United States Medicines Agency (FDA) authorized Pfizer’s vaccine via an emergency procedure. A week before that of Moderna. In a press release, Albert Bourla did not hide his happiness: “We have achieved the impossible. »
A vaccine and anti-Covid treatment on a forced march
December 2019 : local authorities in Wuhan, China, report a cluster of pneumonia cases.
January 2020 : According to Chinese authorities, the epidemic was caused by a new coronavirus, declares the World Health Organization (WHO).
March 2020 : Pfizer, associated with the German BioNTech, takes the bet to release a vaccine in October 2020.
July 2020 : Pfizer-BioNTech launches a large wave of clinical trials (and Moderna too, at the same time).
November 2020 : Pfizer-BioNTech announces that its vaccine is 90% effective.
December 2020 : the United Kingdom, then the United States and finally the European Union authorize the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
February 2022 : Paxlovid, antiviral against Covid-19 developed by Pfizer, becomes the first Covid treatment available in pharmacies in France.