Realising the full potential of the UK’s £100m vaccine manufacturing facility

The UK government has invested an extra £100m in a new state-of-the-art centre to scale up Covid-19 vaccine and gene therapy manufacturing. It says this will be vital for the UK’s ability to respond to viruses like the new coronavirus and other potential future pandemics. Rod Schregardus, a pharmaceutical manufacturing expert at The Access Group says this is great news, but warns that consideration must also be given now to the facility’s manufacturing planning and scheduling systems to ensure it can meet its full potential. 

Located in Braintree, Essex, the Government's new COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing facility is due to open in December 2021. With the capacity to produce millions of doses a month, the new site will ensure the UK can manufacture vaccines for a whole range of emerging diseases beyond this crisis and far into the future.

This is a prudent step, as the incidence of outbreaks of new diseases are on the increase. Not all diseases will threaten the UK in the same way that Covid-19 has, however scientists agree that increased urbanisation, deforestation, human-to-animal contact and global travel combine to make a dangerous cocktail. 

No one can be sure what challenges we will face in the future. And there are a lot of unknowns when it comes to Covid-19 vaccines too. There’s a need to be prepared but there are also a lot of variables which make it impossible to make rock-solid plans. For example, we don’t yet know how long it will take to make a batch of any new vaccine - it could be six weeks or it could be 36 weeks as there is no precedent. Despite this, it’s essential that we have the correct infrastructure in place to respond quickly when necessary, ensuring we can provide a dose of vaccine for every person in the country as soon as possible.

The global response to this outbreak by the international scientific community has been extraordinary; with more than 140 separate teams of researchers working on a vaccine. Several vaccines were available just months after the emergence of the new Coronavirus, which has impacted pretty much all 8 billion human lives on the planet.

That said, how did we translate the amazing progress made into readily available doses of inexpensive vaccines in very large numbers?  The pharmaceutical industry is highly complex with many interdependent processes throughout the manufacturing process. Ordinarily a product lifecycle can span four decades from R&D to sales. This makes the rapid manufacture of a vaccine en-masse a relatively alien concept.

All drugs go through a rigorous approvals process, but this was speeded up where possible. For example, there were lots more volunteers taking part in trials than ordinarily would be the case because it’s been so high profile - catalysts such as this likely made this the fastest development programme ever undertaken.

So, once vaccines are approved, where do we go next? We’d argue that having the right technology and systems in place to ensure the best process will be as important as having the means of production on standby. This is needed to ensure enough stock can be manufactured quickly enough to protect the population and limit further damage to society.

The use of an advanced planning and scheduling (APS) system is critical in creating a single real-time plan to reduce lead times and optimise resources. The granularity of data far exceeds that of spreadsheets and users are able to use this to model scenarios based on resources, constraints and process time, in order to make more effective decisions.

So, what are the critical elements to ensure we maximise the new facility’s full potential?

Live and central data

Spreadsheets are complex, inconsistent, prone to errors and out-of-date - not to mention time-consuming. With no visibility over processes, they are unable to show where there is capacity. Having a single source of data to base decisions on, means no time lag and the assurance of a standardised dataset, leading to one single version of the truth.

This is key to ramping up vaccine production quickly. After all, without a firm basis of evidence, how can managers make informed decisions that ultimately drive performance? This will save all important time and reduce the likelihood of planning mistakes and delays - set-backs we can ill-afford.

Scenario planning

As there are so many unknowns, setting the facility up to enable a 360-degree view will enable planners to act quickly and communicate any changes to drive productivity. This means implementing an APS which has powerful planning capabilities that help production managers coordinate each stage of manufacturing.

Crucially, this can be fundamental for scaling up operations in a new facility such as the one planned in Essex. ‘What-if?’ scenario planning means we’ll be able to model different options and understand the impact of different variables in the production process, including the resources needed and whether bottlenecks are likely to occur.

As we understand more about the production process, planners will be able to use this approach to plot the best path to manufacture the greatest amount of vaccine in the shortest space of time. 

Intelligent scheduling systems

Alongside planning, there will also need to be a scheduling function which facilitates production constraints (materials, workforce and so on) to create and optimise a schedule. This will enable the team to intelligently manage workloads, taking the availability of different resources into account and helping to facilitate different production routes where necessary. 

Free the experts

In addition to the investment in new manufacturing infrastructure, the Government has also made an additional £4.7m available for new training facilities, and an online learning platform, to boost vaccines as well as cell and gene therapy skills.

It’s important to note that having advanced systems in place will not replace the experience of the planning team. However, it will do the heavy lifting for planners and supervisors, allowing them to focus on ensuring the facility reaches its maximum potential as soon as possible, using their knowledge and expertise.

Let’s make sure we guarantee that those at the helm, when this facility is complete, will be spending less time accessing spreadsheets and more on completing the task at hand. Only when there is a single version of the truth will they identify how to truly maximise resources and yield, while eliminating the human errors that invariably come as a result of manual processes.

There will be more than enough to think about for them given the momentous task of planning the manufacture of enough vaccines for the entire country now and in the future.

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