Vaccines are vital to public health, particularly during disease outbreaks. But as COVID-19 illustrated, centralized manufacturing systems struggle to ensure equitable access to jobs when demand suddenly increases.

Localizing production using modular facilities is a potential solution, says Seyed Soheil Mansouri, PhD, an associate professor of biochemical engineering at the Technical University of Denmark, who looked at factors impacting access to vaccines in a new study.

“The idea was to explore the intersection between centralized and decentralized production of biopharmaceuticals in conjunction with development goals for equal access to health care around the globe,” he tells GEN. “The key finding is that modular units, if realized properly, can provide a versatile and flexible manufacturing option for a range of biopharmaceuticals critical to maintaining the well-being of societies and human communities in need, especially during pandemics or major disease outbreaks.”

Modular manufacturing

In addition to establishing the factors limiting access to vaccines, Mansouri and colleagues also developed ideas for modular facilities—known as mobile on demand (MOD) production systems—they say could help localize vaccine manufacturing. “We designed two MOD vaccine manufacturing units based on a protein antigen expressed in yeast and in vitro transcription of mRNA,” he adds.

Each of the units—which would be housed in a space approximately the size of two shipping containers—would be able to produce in the order of 10,000 vaccine doses per day for local distribution. The goal is to use the systems to produce vaccines at competitive prices and in proximity of their end users. And, according to Mansouri, from a public health perspective such an ambition is worth the initial investment.

“Abandoning economies of scale may lead to a moderate increase in production costs that may be outweighed by reduced closed-vial dose wastage and an earlier protection of vulnerable populations,” he explains. “What we are proposing here is the feasibility of modular vaccine production and a conceptual process design how it can be realized. Work needs to be done in terms of day-to-day production operations, automation, and the introduction of advanced technologies including IoT, collaborative robots, AI, and process intensification.”

In the paper, the concept was demonstrated using COVID-19 as a model. However, the approach could be easily tailored to produce other vaccines and biopharmaceuticals, according to the authors.

For Mansouri, modular production technologies have the potential to significantly increase access to vaccines and medicines in general, particularly if public health authorities and international organizations support their development.

“The target users are governments, humanitarian relief organizations, and local stakeholders in developing countries,” he notes. “The research is now in a conceptual phase to demonstrate the viability of such units. Efforts on an international scale need to take place to make such concepts materialize.”