With Covid-19 Vaccines in the Pipeline, Attention Turns to Medical-Grade Vials
As multiple Covid-19 vaccines enter their final phases of human trials, the supply of medical-grade vials needed to hold them has emerged as a worrying obstacle.
Borosilicate glass — made from silica and boron trioxide — is strong, resistant to changes in temperature and acidity, and is relatively inert. That makes it ideal for all kinds of medical uses, including making the small vials that hold individual doses of vaccine.
“[Medical glass] is an important logistical consideration in terms of producing a vaccine,” said Dr. Kylie Quinn, a vaccine researcher at RMIT University. “You want to be sure (the vaccine is) stable, so that it can get to people in the right condition … so that you get nice consistent immune responses across the population,” Quinn said.
Anticipating demand for enough vials to deliver vaccines to a critical mass of people around the world, medical-glass makers have been amping up production capacity.
Medical glass is tough to make and barriers to entry are high — China relies mostly on imports for its supply. A handful of global companies including Nippon Electric Glass Co. Ltd. of Japan and Nipro Medical Corp. and Corning Inc. of the U.S., dominate production of borosilicate glass tubes, while companies including France’s SGD Pharma, Italy’s Stevanto Group SpA and Germany’s Gerresheimer AG make the finished vials. German heavyweight Schott AG does both.
China’s reliance on foreign imports for the key piece of medical hardware essential to the vaccines is raising concern.
A new 60 million euro ($70.7 million) factory in Zhenjiang, East China’s Jiangsu province, established by Schott could help with glass supply, if things go to plan. Its new medical glass plant in Jinyun county will produce enough glass to make around 7 billion vials annually by the end of 2020, the company said.
Chinese producer Shandong Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. was the first in the country, and only the sixth firm in the world, to master the production of the neutral borosilicate molded glass bottles used to carry vaccines, but it can only produce about 200 million per year. Caixin understands the company has not yet received any purchase orders for the bottles and has not adjusted its production.
Meanwhile local player, Zhengchuan Pharmaceutical Packaging, said Wednesday evening that it plans to issue 405 million yuan ($57.8 million) in six-year convertible corporate bonds to fund its own production of the glass.
Flynn Murphy contributed reporting.
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