Metal is the essential material of our time—and at the heart of rebuilding America’s aging infrastructure. Part two in this four-part series explores its role in manufacturing vaccines critical to COVID-19 and beyond.

Kudos to pharmaceutical manufacturers that have worked at a breakneck pace as of late trialing, producing, and rolling out COVID-19 vaccines. But as the world looks forward, could their ability to rise to the occasion in the face of another potential pandemic be slowed by a lack of manufacturing space and a tightness in the supply of metal?

Both factors play an enormous role in the ability to get vaccines produced, distributed, and administered to the population. And it starts, of course, with the physical space to perform trials and scale-up production of the vaccinations. 

Manufacturers are finding it increasingly difficult to secure physical space for production. While it’s a broader issue for the manufacturing industry, those in the pharmaceutical space have a particular challenge when planning their facilities— “clean rooms”. These are spaces utilized as a part of specialized industrial production or scientific research and require specialized sterilization for materials and equipment.

Of course, companies that have already come to market with COVID-19 vaccinations, could have a leg-up in raising the bar. Moderna, Inc., for example, which successfully accelerated the production of its Moderna COVID-19 vaccine (mRNA-1273), recently announced new capital investments to increase capacity at its owned and partnered manufacturing facilities. The drug maker expects to increase global capacity to approximately 1.4 billion doses of its COVID-19 vaccine, assuming a 100 μg dose by 2022.

The investments, according to Moderna, will enable additional production of the current Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine and provide flexibility in addressing production of potential vaccine boosters that may be needed to address emerging variants of SARS-CoV-2.

Beyond the facilities, industry experts warn that a critical shortage of basic medical supplies could threaten the development of future vaccines. Some manufacturers have had to get creative to conserve scarce supplies. For instance, Pfizer figured out that recycling special filters needed for the vaccine production process helps stretch the supply of these materials.

Products like scales, chillers, and detection systems, which all remain in high demand, are made using stainless steel. This type of material features heat-resistant and corrosion-resistant properties vital to combatting chemical corrodents and harmful industrial atmospheres during the manufacturing process.

However, the ongoing shortage of cold-rolled stainless steel products could exacerbate the imbalance of supply and demand for this equipment.

It’s another leg of the story of why it’s time to invest and engage in the renewal and modernization of our infrastructure. After all, vaccines cannot be produced, distributed, or administered without the right material and methods.