Covid's Staying Power, mRNA Vaccine Emergence Offer Shot In The Arm For Biomanufacturing Real Estate
The wide-scale effort to quickly create, manufacture and distribute Covid-19 vaccines has been a landmark scientific achievement, proving a key use case for nascent mRNA technology, which teaches cells to make a protein that triggers an immune response.
But there are a few big outstanding questions — namely how much we will need booster shots — that will determine if vaccine manufacturing expands at a pace that will radically increase the size of the booming biomanufacturing sector and spur on new manufacturing deals and development.
It’s fair to speculate that vaccine manufacturing will grow, said Derek Lowe, a drug discovery chemist and author of In the Pipeline, a blog that covers vaccines and biomanufacturing.
Moderna, which has seen outsized success with its mRNA vaccine, is currently expanding production capacity at its Boston-area plant, and expects to see $17.1B in sales this year, The Wall Street Journal reports. Pfizer just asked the Food and Drug Administration for an emergency authorization for a third booster dose of its vaccine, per Bloomberg, with President of Research and Development Mikeal Dolsten saying the move is due to promising early tests and concerns about the transmissibility of the delta variant.
The vast majority of the world’s population, just shy of 80%, still needs shots in arms to reach herd immunity, but Lowe said existing manufacturing capacity — especially the rapidly developed emergency capacity to create mRNA vaccines via Project Warp Speed, and those already in the pipeline — should have that covered. Plus, the recent approval of Novavax's additional vaccine candidate, which is easier to ship and store than existing options, will add to an already sizable arsenal of vaccines.
Boosters are the big question, and there isn’t a clear, definitive read on whether they’re needed or not, Lowe said.
“What happens when epsilon or zeta [variants] show up?” he said. “Everyone will be on guard looking for new spreading variants.”
Additional shots for those already vaccinated may be needed if a new variant develops immunity to existing treatments, or if we discover over time existing shots don’t have the staying power initially expected, but both scenarios have indefinite timelines.
The right answer, however, may send significant funding to regions already primed for biomanufacturing. The $18B Operation Warp Speed and BARDA countermeasure medical portfolio sent Maryland-based companies over $6B in funding in the past 18 months, said Pete Briskman, executive managing director and co-Lead for JLL's Mid-Atlantic Life Sciences Practice. That funding has benefited specific sectors and triggered increased biomanufacturing investment, specifically vaccine development, contract manufacturing, therapeutics and diagnostics.
It’s a process that creates a chain of companies akin to the auto industry; Moderna’s manufacturing process for its vaccine requires support from contract manufacturing firms Lonza and Catalent.
In North Carolina, for instance, contract manufacturing firm Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, located in the Research Triangle, received a boost from the $1.6B Warp Speed contract given to Novavax, and contract manufacturing in Florida and Texas saw investments of $100M or more.
This ramp-up has already led to some speculative development along Maryland’s I-270 corridor, Briskman said. Landlords are building improved warehouse space to address demand, specifically designed with higher ceilings to hold bioreactors and other ancillary equipment, and stronger floor loads and electrical outputs and dock doors for increased delivery volume.
“Looking into the future, as booster shots are proven an effective way to combat Covid, we foresee more companies entering the market and a further need for biomanufacturing product that aligns with these companies' very specific production needs," Briskman said.
Even if booster shots aren’t ultimately required, many believe the impressive display of mRNA technology and the robust rollout of this new therapy will have a halo effect on the industry for the immediate future.
“It has been suggested that the increased trust and positive visibility the industry has had over the past year has increased investment, allowing companies to move forward with drug development plans,” North Carolina Biotechnology Center Director of Life Science Economic Development Laura Rowley said.
Lowe said the other significant question is how mRNA technology can be utilized for other diseases and conditions. There are unrealized vaccine opportunities right now, specifically malaria — an effort is already in the works — and dengue fever, but after that, the markets for new vaccines are relatively small.
To replace an existing, standard vaccine would require extensive testing and development, and with so much global production capacity devoted to existing production measures, it is unlikely new mRNA methods will be used to replace existing vaccines.
The real breakthrough would be treating other conditions, in effect leveraging mRNA’s ability to teach cells to act and train them to cure other conditions. Lowe said there are potentially opportunities to fight cancer, and there is even research around potentially treating neurodegenerative diseases, such as multiple sclerosis. Moderna didn’t start out as a vaccine company; it initially focused on therapeutics.
Lowe said the answers to the future of vaccines may not come for a few years. What’s currently being built for the coronavirus should cover existing needs — the Army Corps of Engineers was even helping biomanufacturing plants expand capacity. But as the past few years have shown, it is challenging to accurately predict issues of epidemiology.