The next big COVID-19 bottleneck? A shortage of trained vaccine workers, experts say

COVID-19 has put global manufacturing supply chains through the wringer: First, there were fears of a glass vial shortage; then, concerns cropped up about hold ups on plastic bags used to grow vaccine cells. Now, executives at a suite of COVID-19 heavyweights are raising flags about another pandemic resource in scarcity: people.

When Moderna last week revealed that its COVID-19 vaccine deliveries to countries like the U.K. and Canada would come in light, the mRNA player blamed the squeeze on limited “human and material resources." During a Friday summit on the pandemic vaccine scale-up, the biotech's CEO Stéphane Bancel offered some additional context: “The bottleneck right now is people.”

While Moderna handles the bulk of its manufacturing work in the U.S., the company's European supply chain depends upon Swiss CDMO Lonza, which has struggled to hire on enough specialized personnel for its vaccine production push, the chief executive said. 

"This is why there has been, in some countries, a little bit of delays in the past week or two," Bancel added. 

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To fill the employment gap, Lonza is switching workers over from other projects at its Visp, Switzerland, plant and is hiring new staffers. The company has also reached out to other pharmas for help, "including companies on this panel," Bancel said, in a possible nod to GSK. 

It wouldn't be unfamiliar territory for the U.K. big pharma. As Glaxo plugs away on its own pair of vaccine hopefuls with Sanofi and Medicago, the company has recently lent its manufacturing muscle to production of Novavax's shot and CureVac's mRNA-based hopeful

The Moderna helmsman wasn't the only exec to flag the people shortage during the manufacturing summit, which featured experts from BIO, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA), the Developing Countries Vaccine Manufacturers’ Network (DCVMN) and COVAX, plus GlaxoSmithKline, Bharat Biotech and Moderna.

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Alongside material and export bottlenecks, "we have also seen, actually, the importance of the skilled workers you need," Thomas Cueni, director general of IFPMA, said. Leaders from GlaxoSmithKline, Bharat and Moderna had all raised similar concerns about shortages of trained vaccine workers, he noted.

According to a recent World Bank report, there should be enough vaccine doses worldwide to hit herd immunity by March 2022, but manufacturers have warned that that mission's success hinges on the resolution of trade barriers, export restrictions and the material shortages that ensue. 

Aside from the worker shortage, shortfalls of items viewed as "mundane" like single-use plastic bags have become a problem for Indian manufacturers, Rajinder Suri, the chief of DCVMN said.

"I don't think we have a solution in sight," he added.

Suri was among several at the panel, along with BIO chief Michelle McMurry-Heath, M.D., Ph.D., to raise concerns about the U.S.' recent invocation of the Defense Production Act, which has helped local companies shore up materials and equipment but also makes exporting supplies more difficult.

Bharat and SII and even Novavax have drawn attention to the plastic bag shortage in recent weeks, with SII chief Adar Poonawalla pleading with President Joe Biden on Twitter to ease exports coming out of the U.S.