Novartis says it's ready to pitch in on manufacturing rivals' COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics

Right after Sanofi stepped in to help produce Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccines in Europe, Novartis is exploring whether it can deploy its own manufacturing network to boost COVID-19 supplies. Separately, the U.S. is weighing the Defense Production Act to compel drugmakers to produce Pfizer or Moderna mRNA vaccines.

Novartis is "currently in discussions with several companies with a view to supporting the manufacturing of vaccines and components for tests for Covid-19," a spokesman said.

Novartis sees controlling the pandemic as "one of the most pressing concerns for leaders, businesses and individuals all across the world," he said, so the company is "exploring ways in which we can collaborate with our partners in the industry, and leverage our manufacturing capacity and capabilities to contribute to the pandemic effort."

Though Novartis isn't at the forefront of COVID-19 vaccine or drug development, it is involved in the fight. Last year, Novartis Gene Therapies signed up to produce an early-stage COVID-19 gene therapy being investigated by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Massachusetts Eye and Ear, for instance.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government is considering tapping drug manufacturers who aren’t already making vaccines to produce doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna mRNA shots via the Defense Production Act, Reuters reports. Both vaccines carry FDA emergency authorizations, but limited supply and logistics hurdles have complicated their rollouts. 

RELATED: Sanofi, after R&D setback, lends a hand to vaccine rival Pfizer for coronavirus shot production 

At a media briefing this week, White House senior COVID-19 advisor Andy Slavitt said he didn’t want to “talk about specific names," as quoted by the news service, but he said the administration is “not afraid to explore every option to get more vaccines to the public as quickly as possible." Before taking office, President Joe Biden’s advisors said the new president would invoke the Defense Production Act to boost vaccine supplies. 

The talks come right after the French drugmaker Sanofi signed up to produce 100 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for Europe. After Sanofi late last year suffered an R&D setback for its own vaccine program, the company reached out to rival Pfizer to see if it could help with manufacturing. The first batches will be delivered from Sanofi’s site in Frankfurt, Germany, by August, a spokesman said.

Even as the Biden team considers the Defense Production Act, experts recently raised concerns to Kaiser Health News about the legality of the plan and complexity of mRNA vaccine production. Converting an existing pharma manufacturing plant would require significant time, rigorous cleaning, converting equipment and training staff, they said. Plus, there’s no way to be sure vaccines that come from the new plant are safe and effective without testing, one expert told KHN.  

RELATED: Order up: U.S. calls on Pfizer, Moderna for 200 million more vaccine doses 

In a separate move to address supply concerns, the Biden administration this week ordered another 200 million mRNA vaccine doses from Pfizer and Moderna, taking the U.S. total haul up to 600 million doses. That supply, when it’s delivered, will be enough to vaccinate 300 million people, or almost the entire U.S. population. The new doses are on tap to be delivered this summer.  

The administration is also weighing bringing more distributors on board to bolster deliveries, Reuters reports.