An Auburn biotech manufacturer and its local workers are central combatants in America’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
SiO2 Material Science, located in the southwest corner of the city, is making the plastic vials – fused with a layer of glass 50 times finer than a strand of human hair – for drugmaker Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine.
The vial technology has been in the works for a few years, but it was local, state and federal dollars that has allowed SiO2 to scale up its production in the last six months, providing the resources for the company to more than double its footprint and go from 100 or so workers at this time last year up to nearly 700 today.
SiO2’s COVID-19 vaccine vials combine the best of plastic and glass, according to Lawrence Ganti, president and chief business officer.
“So the outside is a polymer, you think of polymer as plastic, right?" Ganti explains. “The challenge with plastic alone is that it doesn't have a barrier to oxygen or a barrier to moisture. All these advanced biological drugs, including all the MRNA vaccines, are sensitive to oxygen and moisture, so you can't use a regular plastic container.”
The company gets around that by bonding a fine silicate, or glass, layer with the plastic that makes it impermeable – for all intents and purposes – and strong enough to maintain its integrity even it were run over by a Sherman tank.
Those properties make SiO2’s vials ideal for the coronavirus vaccine, which requires refrigeration; indeed, long-term storage of Moderna’s product requires normal home freezer temperatures. Pfizer’s vaccine, which will not be stored in SiO2 vials, must be kept at -94 degrees Fahrenheit.
The SiO2 plant is located in a wooded, nearly empty section of Auburn Technology Park West.
One look at the overflowing parking lot shows it’s bursting with workers readying and shipping the vials to third-party vendors to fill with Moderna’s vaccine – once it gets approval from federal regulators.
Once inside, there are dozens of workers on each shift busy in clean labs monitoring advanced machines and packing trays. The machines are so advanced that they laser-inscribe codes onto each vial, then scans them into an inventory system which tracks each step of the production process for each one of the tens of millions of vials shipped from the plant. If one goes bad anywhere in the world, SiO2 can retrace it from creation to determine how it went bad, according to company officials.
There are more workers in the warehouses and hallways, huddled in improvised office spaces. They make sure the paperwork is right, attend to shipping needs, order fulfillment and more. The facility runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week – even on Thanksgiving and Christmas – to keep up with demand, which has increased 12-fold due to the coronavirus.
The rush of activity was made possible, in large part, by a $143 million federal contract to scale up production of the vials, secured with help from Auburn city and Alabama state officials.
“We’re proud to have some of the world’s leading scientists and product developers working in our community,” Auburn Mayor Ron Anders said when the deal was announced earlier this year. “With the presence of these companies and Auburn University’s outstanding medical and engineering programs, we believe we’ll see significant growth in the biotech industry right here in Auburn.
“On top of that, the well-paying jobs created through this project will result in significant economic opportunities for our local businesses.”
Ganti said city officials have been essential to what’s going on now at SiO2. Auburn Economic Development Director Phillip Dunlap and his team organized job fairs, identified skilled labor laid off by other manufacturers – due to global supply chain problems caused by the coronavirus – and helped clear the way for the company to expand its existing facilities in the city, including the soon-to-be 70,000-square-foot site in the technology park.
“One of the job fairs hired 71 people in four hours, right?” Ganti said. “So that was great and they brought in qualified people. We were also lucky, you know. I always hate to say this, but we got lucky with COVID to some extent because unfortunately there were a lot of factories that had to shut down.”
According to Ganti, there is plenty of work now and in the future for those workers who have streamed into SiO2 since the coronavirus reared its head in the U.S. earlier this year. Annual vaccinations against COVID-19 are likely, he said, as with the seasonal flu.
There will also be other medicines that will be right for SiO2’s vials, syringes and the like.
“This is constant product development and manufacturing,” Ganti said. “And this (level of production) was probably in our numbers 3-4 years from now … it hasn’t changed our business plan; it’s accelerated it. We’re always looking for good people on the production floor, quality management roles, quality technicians, quality inspectors and, of course, engineers. We have great access to engineering talent at the universities near us (Auburn, Tuskegee, Southern Union, etc.), so, yeah, we’re constantly looking to hire.”