Novartis pitches in to help produce Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine

Novartis headquarters
Novartis will offer BioNTech COVID-19 production help at a plant it Switzerland. (Novartis)

Only a day after Novartis said it was looking at offering its manufacturing network to the global COVID-19 fight, the company is joining forces with Pfizer and BioNTech to help produce mRNA vaccines. It's the latest example of an unlikely Big Pharma partnership spurred by the urgent need to defeat the pandemic.

Novartis inked an initial agreement with BioNTech to allow the mRNA biotech use of Novartis' facility in Stein, Switzerland. The production will start in the second quarter, and the partners expect dose deliveries to begin in the third quarter.

The Pfizer/BioNTech shot is one of only a few that have been approved in countries around the world, and in the early stages of the rollout, demand has greatly outstripped supply. Pfizer and BioNTech have been working to scale up their manufacturing network to deliver 2 billion doses this year, but the effort led to a temporary supply disruption in Europe earlier this month.

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Under the Novartis pact, the Swiss drugmaker will receive bulk mRNA active ingredient from BioNTech and fill it into vials. The company will then ship those vials back to BioNTech for global distribution.

As the companies gear up for the work, Novartis is also in "advanced discussions" with multiple other companies involved in COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics.

“Novartis has been mobilizing on multiple fronts to support the global pandemic response,” Novartis Technical Operations head Steffen Lang said in a statement, adding, “We expect this to be the first of a number of such agreements.”

For the Pfizer/BioNTech team, it's their second manufacturing tie-up with a big pharma this week. Early in the week, Sanofi said it would produce 100 million shots of the mRNA vaccine for delivery in 2021. 

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Amid the pandemic, drug companies that are typically rivals have joined forces to collaborate on research or manufacturing for drugs and vaccines. Aside from Sanofi's manufacturing partnership with Pfizer and BioNTech, the company joined forces with vaccine rival GlaxoSmithKline earlier in the pandemic to advance an adjuvanted shot. The companies remain in midstage testing.

On the manufacturing side, Regeneron and Roche have teamed up to boost antibody production, as have Eli Lilly and Amgen.