Amid AstraZeneca setback, Germany banks on homegrown vaccine

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A laboratory worker simulates the workflow in a cleanroom of the BioNTech Corona vaccine production in Marburg, Germany, during a media day on Saturday, March 27, 2021. BioNTech, the Mainz-based company that invented the messenger RNA-based vaccine, is busily ramping up its production capabilities at the company's new production facility in Marburg. BioNTech originally expected the plant could turn out 700 million doses per year; it has since upgraded its expectations to a billion a year. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

MARBURG – As Germany ponders how to accelerate its sluggish coronavirus vaccination campaign after yet another hitch involving the AstraZeneca shot, a production facility in the historic pharmaceutical center of Marburg may hold part of the answer to reliable supply in the months and years ahead.

BioNTech, the German company that developed the first widely used vaccine together with U.S. partner Pfizer, is busily starting up a production facility that it says can produce up to a billion doses this year alone. That estimate was raised from the original hopes for 700 million.

The company, which had never brought a pharmaceutical product to market before, wowed the world last year when it got authorization to sell a completely new type of vaccine in Britain, the United States and Europe — three highly regulated markets for medical products.

The active ingredient in the shot is messenger RNA, or mRNA, which contains the instructions for human cells to construct a harmless piece of the coronavirus called the spike protein. The human immune system recognizes the spike protein as foreign, allowing it to mount a response against the virus upon infection.

Scientists have known how to make mRNA for some time, but not for commercial mass production.

“This is what makes it exciting from a scientific perspective, but also from a manufacturing perspective, to do it on such a large scale, in such a short period of time,” said Valeska Skilling, head of production at the plant.

BioNTech only received approval Friday from the European Medicines Agency for the manufacture of the vaccine at the Marburg site, which was bought from Novartis last year. The site is located within a pharma industry cluster whose roots go back more than a century to Nobel Prize winner Emil von Behring, who developed the antitoxin for diptheria and tetanus.

Globally, BioNTech and Pfizer now estimate they can manufacture 2.5 billion doses in 2021, half a billion more than forecast in February.