Lonza's Visp manufacturing lines, tapped in COVID-19 vaccine push, will take time to hit 'cruising speed': report

When Moderna first tapped Swiss CDMO juggernaut Lonza to crank out its COVID-19 vaccine, the partners set the goal to eventually hit 600 million to 1 billion doses per year. With one of three new production lines now up and running at Lonza's Visp, Switzerland, site, the manufacturer is homing in on its low-end production goal—though it may take some time before that operation is running at full speed, the company's CEO revealed. 

As it stands, Lonza has secured capacity for 400 million doses of Moderna's mRNA shot, Reuters reports. That's thanks to build outs at its plants in Portsmouth, New Hampshire—which kicked off manufacturing last year—and Visp, Switzerland, where the company has started cranking out drug substance on one line while it awaits the launch of two more within the quarter. 

But Lonza CEO Pierre-Alain Ruffieux, talking to reporters Wednesday, said it could take "a couple of months" before the Visp site reaches "cruising speed," Reuters said. 

The lines that are running in Portsmouth and Visp put Lonza closer to the lower 600-million-dose production target the companies established last year, but it may be a while before they feel the full effects of that planned capacity boost in Europe. 

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The timing isn't great for the European Union, which has recently had to contend with vaccine supply squeezes from both Pfizer and BioNTech and AstraZeneca. Pfizer and its German mRNA partner said earlier this month that a factory upgrade in Puurs, Belgium, would temporarily cause supply shortfalls in Europe, Canada and a few other countries. 

AstraZeneca followed suit shortly after, notifying EU officials last week that its first-quarter deliveries would come in lighter than expected. The supply hiccup is the product of "reduced yields at a manufacturing site within our European supply chain," a company spokesperson told Fierce Pharma. 

The moves have drawn fire from countries across the bloc, with countries such as Italy even considering legal action against AZ. Italy's first-quarter allotment has been cut to 3.4 million doses from 8 million, the Financial Times reported earlier this week. 

Still, Lonza's Swiss expansion appears to be on track based on the company's most recent guidance. Earlier this month, Lonza confirmed the installation of its three Visp lines and a production start on the first. "The two remaining lines will come on-line sequentially during Q1 2021 as planned," the company said in a statement. At the time, it said it hoped to produce its first vaccine batch by the end of the month. 

Meanwhile, Ruffieux didn't comment on a timeline for Lonza's Visp facilities to hit full capacity or its delivery targets to Moderna, Reuters said. The company didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. 

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Ruffieux made his comments after Lonza reported sales had climbed 12% to CHF 4.5 billion ($5 billion) in 2020, with profits landing at CHF 871 million ($979 million), a 35% jump from 2019. Lonza chalked up that double-digit sales growth to its resilience during COVID-19, not to mention its participation in pandemic efforts from major players Moderna and AstraZeneca. 

Lonza is also looking to sell off its specialty ingredients business and has narrowed down a short list of bidders, with plans to ink a deal in the first quarter, the company said in a release. That deal could net Lonza more than CHF 3 billion ($3.4 billion), Reuters noted.