Why a worldwide shortage of plastic bags is choking vaccine production

A shortage of plastic bags has emerged as a bottleneck limiting the world’s ability to make enough vaccines.

The US and Australia have managed to secure supply – but America’s actions have left India’s manufacturers short.

Unlike China, India or the European Union, the US has so far largely refused to export vaccines to the rest of the world, despite sitting on millions of unused jabs.

Employees pack boxes containing vials of AstraZeneca’s COVID vaccine at the Serum Institute of India, in Pune.Credit:AP

That has left India’s huge vaccine factories to immunise the world’s poorer nations.

But a shortfall in raw materials has left them struggling to immunise their own population during the world’s worst COVID-19 outbreak, and they have halted exports while they shore up their own reserves.

The shortage illustrates how the actions of a few rich countries have left the rest of the world vulnerable.

In March, India’s largest vaccine producer the Serum Institute warned those restrictions meant it was struggling to find enough raw materials to make vaccines. But it took until late April – when India was breaking global records of new infections every day -for the US to agree to lift them.

The vast majority of vaccine raw materials come from just 13 countries. This “vaccine club”, as a World Bank report dubbed them, is dominated by the US and Europe.

Many of these countries also make vaccines. “That gives them a double edge against any country which is outside this club,” said report author Professor Simon Evenett.

The materials themselves come from a handful of companies.

“In Europe, as far as I know there are just three [pharmaceutical] glass manufacturers,” said Dr Jurgen Lindner, head of the Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient Manufacturer’s Association of Australia.

“They can’t all a sudden produce a few billion extra glass vials to fill vaccine. When you see how complex those facilities are, it takes a long time to increase production.”

Vaccines require hundreds of products to make: Pfizer’s has more than 280 ingredients, sourced from 86 sites in 19 countries.

But the shortage of specialised, high-volume plastic bags has become critical.

Vaccine manufacturers, including CSL, use them to line the vessels in which they grow the vaccine’s components. CSL told The Age its existing supply chains had helped it largely avoid the supply crunch.

CSL’s Broadmeadows laboratory, where AstraZeneca’s vaccine is being made.Credit:Chris Hopkins

They have to be manufactured to an extremely high standard of sterility; only a few companies in the world make them.

In March, the Serum Institute of India said a plastic bag shortage was hobbling its ability to increase production of Novavax’s vaccine. Australia has signed a deal to purchase 51 million doses of the vaccine.

The world was already experiencing a shortage before COVID-19 hit.

“It started back in late 2019, there was a shortage of the plastic film they used to make these bags,” said Jan Bekker, strategy and business development manager at Pfizer’s Adelaide operation (the facility does not make vaccines).

“And then, when COVID hit in early 2020, a lot of the facilities that are based in China, the US and Europe, went into lockdown. That just created this huge shortage.”

Vials, glass, plastic, bottle stoppers, chemicals and reagents also in short supply.

Then there are the specialised materials needed to make the new mRNA vaccines, which are typically grown by bacteria.

The world’s vaccine production is slated to increase over the coming year – meaning pressure on raw material supply will continue to ramp up.

“The supply chains will be under a serious stress test in the second half of this year,” said the World Bank’s Professor Evenett. “We have not even begun to see if more choke points will emerge.”

Science and health explained and analysed with a rigorous focus on the evidence. Examine is a free weekly newsletter by science reporter Liam Mannix. Sign up to The Age’s here and the Sydney Morning Herald’s here.

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