Fujifilm to double size of Teesside plant that makes Covid vaccine

Japanese conglomerate Fujifilm is making the largest investment in UK pharmaceuticals manufacturing in decades, spending £400m to double the size of its Teesside plant that has been making the Novavax Covid-19 vaccine.

The site in the north-east of England is being transformed with factories specialising in antibody treatments and viral gene therapies. Builders are working on construction of one facility, while the land for the other is still just a football pitch.

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

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

“I’m going to wear the East Coast mainline out, that’s my intention, with bringing customers up 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 has pivoted into pharmaceuticals manufacturing, after its core business suffered from 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 Centre, a biomedical institute, and the innovation centre CPI.

“There are a thousand people sat in the north-east who know how to make nearly every medicine or vaccine that the world can think of,” he said.

But he urged the UK government to invest more in training highly skilled workers for biotech 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 biotech Novavax at the site in Billingham, Teesside, and two US facilities. This material — which includes the antigen that mimics the virus’ spike protein — is then combined with Novavax’s proprietary adjuvant to boost its efficacy.

Despite showing strong phase 3 results at the start 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 had been but Fujifilm had been able to quickly start producing what was requested and had delivered “several scores of batches around the world”.

Novavax has said it believes its vaccine is likely to hold up to new variants but has started development of a potential shot tweaked for the recently discovered Omicron variant.

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

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

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

But he said the supply chain is now in place to prevent the crunches in materials and consumables that have previously slowed down production.

Fujifilm is one of at least four bidders for the UK’s Vaccine Manufacturing Innovation Centre, a flagship pandemic preparedness plant that has recently been put up for sale, according to a person familiar with the matter. Meeson did not confirm the bid, saying only: “We are in conversations with all the government acronyms you would possibly want to think of.”

But he said the company will resist the pandemic-era nationalist push for each country to have its own pharmaceuticals production capacity.

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

Fujifilm had problems moving supplies from the US to the UK and Europe because of how the US used the Defense Production Act to keep key materials at home.

“We’re not just trying to make vaccines. There are all these powerful cancer treatments, genetic medicines out there. One country can’t 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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