Pfizer, Moderna and Alnylam flag pharma labor shortage in Massachusetts—and the people bottleneck doesn't stop there

Raw materials and limits on high-tech equipment often take center stage when it comes to discussions around manufacturing bottlenecks. But the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed another weak link in the pharmaceutical supply chain: people. 

As COVID-19 vaccine production moves full-tilt, mRNA players Pfizer and Moderna are having trouble recruiting talent in Massachusetts, The Boston Globe first reported, citing comments by company execs at a hearing of the Massachusetts Legislative Manufacturing Caucus last week.

Hiring challenges, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic, aren’t unique to COVID-19 vaccine makers. They’re not confined to the Bay State either, biopharma executives have warned.

The problem has surfaced in other industry hot spots like Bothell, Washington, and it's emerged as a pain point in the fast-growing cell and gene therapy field, for example.

Meanwhile, 68% of organizations surveyed during the pandemic flagged finding and attracting quality workers as their biggest recruitment challenge, workforce resources company AMS said earlier this year. 

Pandemic staffing

For Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Moderna, which made its commercial debut with its COVID-19 vaccine last year, part of the problem is simply keeping pace with 2020’s frenzied expansion.

After it “almost industrialized” the hiring process in 2020, Moderna has since seen a “significant” slowdown, Paul Granadillo, senior vice president of global supply chain at Moderna, said at the hearing, as quoted by the Globe. That's taken a toll on the “hiring rate that we feel like we need to be able to maintain the pace of continued capacity increases."

RELATED: Moderna plots 155 new hires in 2021 amid major mRNA vaccine manufacturing expansion

Meanwhile, mRNA compatriot Pfizer is also struggling with recruitment in Massachusetts, Jon Tucker, Pfizer’s global supply site lead in Andover, said at the hearing. In response, the company is looking at ways to attract workers as it anticipates "biotech sector growth," he added, as quoted by the Globe. 

To enlist and keep talent on deck, Pfizer has teamed with the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council’s sister group MassBioEd on an apprenticeship program. The company is also working with local universities to find potential employees, Tucker said.

RELATED: Even in the coronavirus era, U.S. pharma and biotech employees say jobs secure: survey

Moderna earlier this year blamed vaccine delays in countries like the U.K. and Canada on "limited human and material resources" in its European supply chain. At a summit on COVID-19 vaccine scale-up the next week, the biotech's CEO Stéphane Bancel put it more bluntly when he said, "the bottleneck right now is people."

Much of Moderna's production work is concentrated in the U.S., but the company's European supply chain depends on Swiss CDMO Lonza, which had struggled to fill out its roster for the pandemic undertaking, the CEO said at the time. 

Not just a COVID problem

While COVID-19 production timelines have put many companies through the wringer, vaccine players aren’t the only ones struggling to staff up in the pandemic’s second year.

“We’re definitely seeing a slowdown in responses to roles that we’re posting, roles that in previous years you would have had a real big pile of resumes,” Cory Siddons, senior director of manufacturing at Alnylam, said at last week's hearing. The problem isn’t unique to manufacturing technician jobs, Siddons added.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that each new employee needs to be trained on specific manufacturing practices and standards for their role, which can take months at minimum, Andrea Wagner, Ph.D., chief technical officer at Berkshire Sterile Manufacturing, added.

Those technical qualifications become even trickier when applied to fields like cell and gene therapy. The next-gen meds are growing in popularity as hundreds of biopharma companies look to advance their own personalized prospects.

There simply "aren't enough humans" in the highly specialized field, Fabian Gerlinghaus, co-founder and CEO of Cellares, said in a recent interview. 

That's part of the reason his company is angling after automation, and Cellares is far from alone on that quest. Cell and gene compatriots such as Ori Biotech and Avrobio, plus Cytiva and robotics techology company Multiply Labs, are all advancing platforms that aim to subtract people from the cell and gene production process.

RELATED: A 'springboard' to the future: Genentech, Sanofi and Alnylam execs sound off on pharma's evolving back-to-work plans

In states like Massachusetts, North Carolina and Washington, where massive biopharma hubs have taken root, drugmakers are vying with each other for the same skilled workers, making those roles pricey to fill and prone to significant turnover, the Globe pointed out.

Meanwhile, factors like cost of living, commuting and childcare pose the same challenges for the pharma industry as any other right now, Alnylam’s Siddons said. He flagged daycare in particular, given that manufacturing “is a 24/7 thing, and child care is a real constraint for folks.”

Moving westward, the pharma talent pool in Bothell, Washington, where more than 60 life sciences companies host operations, has also been drying up, PharmaExec reported last month. Industrywide, workers experienced in data, temperature control management and "anything" related to cell therapy or CAR-Ts are in high demand, the publication reported.