Thu. Jan 20th, 2022

The Japanese conglomerate Fujifilm is making the largest investment in the manufacture of pharmaceutical products in the UK in decades, spending £ 400 million to double the size of its Teesside plant that manufactured the Novavax Covid-19 vaccine.

The site in the north east of England is being transformed into factories specializing in antibody treatments and viral gene therapies. Builders are working on building one facility, while the land for the other is still just a soccer field.

With the facilities to open in 2023, the company will create up to 350 highly skilled contract manufacturing jobs, translate laboratory inventions into medicines that can be used in clinical trials and then scale them up for commercial production. The factories will also be able to adapt to make vaccines, including using mRNA technology.

Martin Meeson, CEO of Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, the Japanese group’s pharmaceutical division, hopes to create a “golden tetrahedron” linking the Teesside plant to the so-called golden triangle of Cambridge, Oxford and London.

“I’m going to carry the main line of the East Coast, it’s my intention, to bring customers here,” he said.

Fujifilm, best known for its film and cameras, has a long history in medical devices and in particular, X-ray technology. But the company switched to pharmaceutical manufacturing, after its core business suffered under the rise of smartphones. The campus is part of its £ 90bn (£ 600m) capital investment package announced in June.

Meeson said the region has a wealth of talent in the National Horizons Center, a biomedical institute, and the innovation center CPI.

“There are a thousand people in the Northeast who know how to make almost every medicine or vaccine the world can think of,” he said.

But he urged the British government to invest more in training highly skilled workers for biotechnology manufacturing, following the model of US states such as North Carolina and Texas, where Fujifilm has facilities.

Fujifilm manufactures the active ingredient for the vaccines developed by US biotechnology company Novavax at the site in Billingham, Teesside, and two US facilities. This material – which includes the antigen that mimics the virus’ peak protein – is then combined with Novavax’s own additive to increase its effectiveness.

Despite strong Phase 3 results at the beginning of the year, the Novavax vaccine has not yet been approved in the UK, where it was recently submitted to regulators, or the US, after problems with providing consistent manufacturing information. Meeson said he did not know what the problems were, but Fujifilm was able to quickly begin producing what was requested and delivered “multiple score groups around the world.”

Novavax said it believes its vaccine is likely to hold new variants, but has begun developing a potential shot adapted for the recently discovered Omicron variant.

A bioreactor at Fujifilm's laboratory in the north east of England

A bioreactor at Fujifilm’s laboratory in the north east of England. The new facilities are expected to open in 2023 and will create up to 350 jobs © Joanne Coates / FT

Modifying Novavax’s recombinant protein vaccine will take more time than modifying the mRNA shots, Meeson said.

“The selection process with the protein-based vaccines takes a little longer than it takes when you do variant analysis with mRNA,” he said.

But he said the supply chain is now in place to prevent the bruises in materials and consumables that previously delayed production.

Fujifilm is one of at least four bidders for the UK’s Vaccine Manufacturing Innovation Center, a flagship pandemic readiness facility recently put up for sale, according to a person familiar with the matter. Meeson did not confirm the bid and simply said, “We are in talks with all the government acronyms you might want to think about.”

But he said the company would withstand the nationalist pressure of the pandemic era for each country to have its own pharmaceutical production capacity.

“The reason we are in the UK is not to make national goods in the UK. We are here because we do have people within the European continent and beyond who want to come here, ”he said.

Fujifilm has had trouble moving supplies from the US to the UK and Europe due to how the US used the Defense Production Act to keep key material at home.

“We are not just trying to make vaccines. There are all these powerful cancer treatments, genetic medicine out there. One country can not just say, ‘I’m going to produce all the cancer treatments I need. It’s just not going to work, ”he said.

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