Developing a COVID-19 vaccine at breakneck speed was a monumental achievement for Pfizer and BioNTech. The accompanying manufacturing effort is just as onerous.
Similarly, as rapidly as it developed the COVID-19 antiviral, Paxlovid, Pfizer also has scaled up its manufacturing capacity for the pills.
In early November, Pfizer projected it could produce 50 million courses of the treatment in 2022; then, by late in the month, the company bumped that estimate up to 80 million. Monday, during the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, CEO Albert Bourla, Ph.D., took it a big step further.
“We have confidence that we can make 120 million treatments this year,” Bourla said. “That’s 3.6 billion tablets. That’s a very big capacity. But it is doable.”
Bourla broke the production down by quarters. He said 6 million to 7 million will be produced in the first quarter. Then, by the end of the second quarter, Pfizer will have produced 30 million. The company plans to spread the remaining 90 million equally over the final two quarters.
But wait, there’s more. The company is working to add more capacity by the end of this year, because several countries have indicated an interest in stockpiling the treatment, Bourla said. Unlike vaccines, this is an option with Paxlovid because the pill has a shelf-life of three years.
“If those discussions progress, we will have to do more than 120 (million), so this is where we are aiming now,” Bourla said.
Bourla explained that the manufacture of Paxlovid isn’t nearly as complicated as the effort it took to quickly scale up for vaccines. While it’s not easy to make the active ingredient for Paxlovid, the rest of the production process is simpler.
“(Making vaccines) was highly specialized manufacturing, highly specialized raw materials. Very few places in the world make it,” Bourla said. “Here it is a very different situation. Any decent manufacturer of medicines can make it.”
As for Pfizer’s vaccine production, Bourla said it will be ready to produce an omicron-specific shot by March if one is still needed. He added that if a hybrid vaccine (one that defends against omicron and other strains of COVID) is more suitable by that time frame, the company can “immediately” shift its production that way.
“Part of our manufacturing capacity currently is moving to make at-risk the newest version of the vaccine so that we will be able to have quantities to launch if it is needed,” Bourla said.