A Cork firm has played a key role in the safe distribution of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine that is due to arrive in Ireland in the coming days.
Following the approval, this week of the vaccine by the European Medicines Agency, the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said it is planned to begin vaccinations in Ireland on this side of New Year.
The Pfizer BioNTech vaccine is the first to be approved by countries across the globe and millions of vaccinations have already been carried out.
One of Pfizer's plants in Belgium has begun large scale production of the vaccine which will be marketed in the EU under the brand name Comirnaty.
Cork firm IPP in Little Island is playing a key role in the distribution of Comirnaty across the continent. IPP is a technical distributor of manufacturing equipment for the pharmaceutical, medical device and electronics industries.
The company has had technicians based at the Pfizer plant throughout December installing and commissioning the track and trace system that is essential to monitor the supply chain and distribution of the vaccine.
Speaking to the Irish Examiner, the IPP's Managing Director Jack Daly said the firm has a pre-existing relationship with Pfizer.
"Pfizer is capitalising on our expertise and knowledge in this area that we have gained over the years installing these systems across numerous pharma lines across Ireland the UK," he said.
"Once the vial is made there is a barcode on it that we capture, and then each vial goes into a pack and each pack into a case and each case into a pallet. So when that pallet is scanned we can link all individual barcode and break it down at every level and report the entire journey right down to the pharmacy or doctor that is dispensing the vaccine."
Mr Daly said two IPP engineers have been working 24/7 for most of December alongside Pfizer staff to meet the impending demand in Europe and beyond for the vaccine.
"These are highly pressurised situations. Every minute that the line is not producing is less availability of the vaccine that the whole world is waiting for."
In November, Pfizer and BioNTech reached an agreement with the European Commission to supply 200 million doses of a vaccine in 2020 and 2021, with the option for up to 100 million additional doses. Pfizer said delivery will begin immediately and occur in stages to ensure an equitable allocation of vaccines according to contract terms across the EU.
Vaccine doses for Europe will be produced in BioNTech’s manufacturing sites in Germany, and Pfizer’s manufacturing site in Puurs, Belgium.
While not part of the direct manufacturing process, Mr Daly said effective track and trace was essential in order to make the vaccine available to such a large population.
"Unless you can scan and report on the serialisation you cannot ship the goods. It’s not something that is nice to have it is a critical step. From a regulatory point of view, Pfizer has to do this.
Mr Daly said monitoring the distribution of medicines has become much more regulated in recent years in order to tackle the counterfeit market.
"Counterfeit products are referred to as the 'grey market'. We see it in the cosmetics industry, in the tobacco industry and it also exists in the pharmaceutical industry. That's why track and trace systems are so important. It’s about product safety. In certain industries, the grey market is an inconvenience but in the pharmaceutical industry it is a danger to people’s health."
IPP has a staff of 18 across its offices in Cork and Birmingham in the UK and operates in a niche but growing market. "It’s nice to know that a Cork company is contributing positively to the roll-out of this vaccine and supporting Pfizer. We are proud of our team for developing the skillset to support this," Mr Daly said.
German company BioNTech who is partnering with Pfizer on the vaccine said it is pursuing all its options to make more doses than the 1.3 billion they have promised to produce next year, according to the German firm’s chief executive officer.
The companies will probably know by January or February whether and how many additional doses can be produced, Ugur Sahin said in an interview. “I am confident that we will be able to increase our network capacity, but we don’t have numbers yet.” Sahin also said the vaccine will probably work against the new SARS-CoV-2 strain that has emerged in the UK. Lab tests of the vaccine’s performance have already been done against 20 mutant versions; the same tests will now be run against the new UK version, and should take about two weeks, he said.
If the vaccine turns out to be ineffective against the mutant strain circulating in the UK, BioNTech could, in theory, produce a new Covid vaccine to fight the variant within six weeks, Sahin said.