Novartis exec says COVID exposed pharma manufacturing weaknesses. Here's how he plans to fix them

Steffen Lang
Steffen Lang manages Novartis' global supply chain of more than 50 manufacturing sites. (Novartis)

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged companies in all industries, but by and large the pharmaceutical supply chain has held up. Now, more than a year into the crisis, Novartis' top supply chain exec Steffen Lang recently reflected on what went well—and what the future of pharma manufacturing might look like.

Since the start of last year, Lang said he's seen colleagues go "above and beyond" to ensure the company can produce the drugs patients need. Lang manages a network of more than 50 manufacturing sites around the globe, which produce everything from solid dose generics to individualized cell and gene therapies.

More than a year into the crisis, Lang said he's still struck by the “great deal of collaboration” between pharmaceutical companies that are typically rivals. Novartis, for its part, has offered fill/finish services for BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine, and it teamed up with CureVac to help produce that company's mRNA shot. CureVac recently discontinued efforts on its first-gen vaccine and is focusing on a second-gen version in partnership with GlaxoSmithKline.

On the therapeutic side, Novartis in April said it would reserve capacity to help produce the active pharmaceutical ingredient in Roche's Actemra, which has demonstrated benefits in certain COVID-19 patients. 

Even during pandemic lockdowns, most of Novartis sites not only stayed open but "delivered record quantities," Lang said in a recent interview. The exec credited the company's continuity plans—developed before COVID—for that success.

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As for what might change in pharma manufacturing plants, Lang said the pandemic highlighted the benefits of automation. Since old-school production processes require workers to be present, COVID-19 exposed a weakness when workers became infected and had to stay home. In all, automation helps to “further increase quality levels, productivity and output,” Lang said. 

Meanwhile, the company is also investing in continuous manufacturing, a process designed to produce medicines in an end-to-end manner on a single production line, offering speed and scalability benefits. Novartis is on a mission to “reinvent how we manufacture to stay up to speed," Lang said.

RELATED: CureVac, Novartis team up in latest pandemic vaccine manufacturing collaboration

Now, as the world starts to emerge from the pandemic, Novartis sees a “new way of working” where schedules are more flexible, the exec said. Novartis has established a "choice with responsibility" approach to work, allowing individual teams to decide who needs to be physically present for their jobs.

So far, the drugmaker has heard positive feedback, but Lang said it’s “early to say how the new normal will look.” In addition, the company recognizes the need to provide "more flexibility in operations for people working on shifts" and in labs.