So called “smart” vaccine manufacturing technologies, i.e., systems that gather and exchange process data, have been vital in the battle against COVID-19. The availability of higher quality data helped industry accelerate process development and start making billions of doses of vaccine less than a year after SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was sequenced.

To put this in context, before 2019, vaccine development, from discovery, through clinical trials, process development, and manufacturing, took an average of 10 to 15 years, according to an analysis by the  International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA), a trade association.

For Vishnu Kumar Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University, the speed with which the vaccine industry adopted smart manufacturing technologies was the most impressive part of its response to the pandemic.

“The rapid spread of COVID-19 across the globe created an urgent need to save people’s lives and livelihoods. It was recognized, quite early, by the healthcare experts that vaccines were the best way out of the crisis,” he says. “As a result of the pandemic, biopharma firms quickly adopted novel biotechnology platform-based techniques for vaccine manufacturing such as mRNA and viral vector platform-based vaccines.”

And technologies adopted as a result of COVID-19, particularly those used make m-RNA vaccines, are here to stay, points out Kumar, who examined the impact of the pandemic vaccine manufacturing in a recent research paper.

Messenger RNA platform-based vaccines emerged as winners

“Messenger RNA platform-based vaccines have emerged as a winner partly as a result of smart vaccine manufacturing technologies. And, in the future, use of these systems will continue to grow as industry develops vaccines for a wide range of contagious diseases, continues Kumar. “These vaccines can be produced faster, have quick turn-around, are customizable to specific viruses, and hopefully cheaper.”

His view take is in keeping with a recent survey of 95 vaccine makers by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), which found that the majority plan to invest in mRNA and or DNA vaccine production capacity over the next five years.

For the wider biopharmaceutical industry, particularly companies not involved in the fight against COVID-19, the move towards smart manufacturing technologies is likely to be slower according to Kumar, who says entry barriers remain.

“In the context of the biopharma industry, smart manufacturing would mean the adoption of smart devices to capture, store, and transmit data and services to facilitate connections between devices during each stage of the vaccine development and manufacturing process,” he tells GEN.

“However, there are a few barriers that firms usually face: economic constraints, limitations with technology infrastructure, ambiguity with the ownership, privacy, and security of data. These issues need to be considered.”