Moderna has never distributed a product before. A Swiss company is here to help

Lonza Group AG made its first commercial batch of the main ingredient in Moderna Inc.’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate in the U.S. last week and plans to start European production by the end of the month, Chairman Albert Baehny said.

The company is ramping up and fine-tuning its production lines, a process that may stretch into next year.

“We have access to the raw materials; we have access to the people,” Baehny said in an interview. The main challenge is “to optimize as much as possible.”

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Lonza’s effort is key to ensuring a smooth rollout of Moderna’s vaccine, should the shot prove to be safe as well as effective. In contrast to pharma giant Pfizer Inc., its closest U.S. rival in the race for a Covid shot, the biotech has no other marketed products and has never had to build out distribution channels for a medicine.

Most of the production of the drug substance for Moderna’s vaccine is running via Lonza, a Swiss company with a long history of partnering with big drugmakers. Lonza is building out capacity for 400 million doses a year — 300 million from three production lines in Visp, Switzerland, and 100 million in New Hampshire. Moderna itself has one production line with capacity for 100 million doses a year.

Moderna has said it will be able to deliver 20 million doses of vaccine by the end of this year, enough to inoculate 10 million people. The U.S. will get the first batch.

Moderna’s vaccine is a new type of medicine, like the one from Pfizer and its partner, BioNTech SE. Based on messenger RNA, it essentially transforms the cells of the body into tiny vaccine-making machines. That new technology means that Lonza had to create its production lines “from scratch,” Baehny said. The Swiss company has a 10-year exclusive collaboration deal to produce mRNA products for Moderna.

Baehny declined to comment on whether Moderna and Lonza are in talks about adding more production lines. Lonza would have space, mainly in Switzerland, to accommodate additional manufacturing, he said.

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