With COVID-19 vaccines coming, SiO2 injects $163M into vial production plant

SiO2 Materials Science will pour $163 million into an upgrade of its glass vial manufacturing facility to secure adequate storage for COVID-19 vaccines. (Fierce Pharma)

As COVID-19 vaccines move into late-stage testing, governments and drugmakers are scrambling to secure packaging to store those shots. One Alabama-based materials manufacturer hopes to ease that strain with the help of some Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) funding.

Drug packaging specialist SiO2 Materials Science plans to shell out $163 million to expand and upgrade its packaging plant in Auburn, Alabama. The scale-up will boost production capacity for vials and syringes to house COVID-19 vaccines and treatments while allowing the company to continue supplying its current pharma customers. 

The expansion plans follow SiO2's $143 million contract with BARDA and the DOD's Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defense to scale up production. 

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SiO2 will split the investment between expanding its existing facility and building a new, 70,000-square-foot injection molding facility nearby. The upgrade will make room for an additional 220 staffers, slightly more than the 200 employees SiO2 had previously planned to hire. 

RELATED: 4 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses? It's possible, CEPI official tells Reuters

Back in May, health experts warned that a looming shortage of glass vials could hamper efforts to distribute a coronavirus vaccine. Evercore analyst Vijay Kumar said U.S. vials were already in low supply because the type of sand needed to make the glass was itself running scarce. William Schaffner, M.D., professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt Medicine, echoed those concerns, pointing out that U.S. immunization goals far outstripped existing packaging supplies for other annual vaccines like flu shots. 

SiO2's patented vial tech combines a plastic container with a microscopic glass coating; the vials boast thermal stability, chemical stability, a gas barrier and more, making them more shelf-stable, the company said. Plus, the limited use of glass makes them less prone to breaking, both on filling lines and in the hands of patients and healthcare workers. 

In June, around the time SiO2 won its government deal, BARDA awarded $204 million to upstate New York materials manufacturer Corning to scale up production of its glass vials to bottle and store COVID-19 vaccines.

RELATED: Inovio, advancing COVID-19 shot, scores DOD deal to scale up needleless vaccine devices

Meanwhile, drugmakers have invested heavily in fill-finish deals as they hustle their COVID-19 shots into late-stage trials, and the U.S. government has been on the hunt not only for glass vials but also for tubes used in diagnostic testing.

In May, CDMO Thermo Fisher Scientific scored a contract with the U.S. government to produce viral media transport tubes to convey COVID-19 testing samples to labs. AstraZeneca tapped CDMO Catalent in mid-June to handle vaccine finishing and packaging at its Anagni, Italy, manufacturing facility. Then, about a week a week later, Catalent inked another fill-finish deal with Moderna to turn out up to 100 million doses of the company's mRNA vaccine at its Bloomington, Indiana, site. 

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