Battelle, IBM, Merck join university in plan for vaccine factory

An ambitious plan to build a vaccine factory in the Pittsburgh area is gaining momentum with the announcement March 11 of three new partners in the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center project, the Pittsburgh Business Times reported.

“Through this collaboration, we are poised to deliver the urgently needed advances in vaccine development and manufacturing as recently called for by President Obama in his State of the Union address,” UPMC Chief Legal Counsel Robert Cindrich said in a prepared statement.

Battelle, IBM and Merck & Co. Inc. are partnering with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in the development of a first of its kind vaccine factory, the hospital network announced.

The new facility will be designed to produce multiple vaccines simultaneously and would be capable of quickly switching production from one vaccine to another to respond to a crisis.

The new partners join GE Healthcare in pursuing construction of the facility, which UPMC wants to operate in partnership with the federal government as a way to respond quickly to chemical, biological or radiological threats.

The plant would be funded by the federal government and operate as a nonprofit UPMC subsidiary. Last year, UPMC President and CEO Jeffrey Romoff said he favored a site near the old Pittsburgh International Airport for the factory.

The cost of the plan had been estimated at $900 million, but recent estimates were lower. An exact figure was not available.

21CB is the nonprofit corporation created by UPMC last year to own and operate the facility, which will create 1,000 jobs directly and up to 6,000 jobs indirectly, according to UPMC.

Battelle has agreed to provide pre-clinical research and development services, including infectious disease model development and product safety and efficacy evaluations, services that will support licensure of new vaccines and therapeutics. IBM will provide information technology that is necessary to support vaccine manufacturing processes and operations. The infrastructure will be able to handle massive amounts of data and scale quickly to changing demand.

Drugmaker Merck has agreed to provide drug development and bioprocess counsel as part of a planned consortium of other biopharmaceutical companies.

The new partnerships come two months after President Obama’s State of the Union address, when he promoted a new initiative to respond faster and more effectively to bioterrorism and infectious disease threats.

The administration plans to pursue a “business model that leverages market forces and reduces risk to attract pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry collaboration with the U.S. government,” Obama said in his speech.

In December, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius ordered a major review of the federal government’s policies for developing new vaccines and other public health defenses in the wake of problems ramping up for the H1N1 outbreak.

The review was expected to be completed early this year.