Teesside factory making Covid vaccine gets £400m injection

Photograph: Scott Heppell/PA

A Teesside factory that makes Covid-19 vaccines has received a £400m injection from its Japanese owners, the largest single investment in UK pharmaceutical manufacturing in decades.

The biotechnology arm of the Japanese conglomerate Fujifilm, which is better known for its photography heritage, said the package would more than double its Billingham site’s development and manufacturing capability, creating the largest biopharmaceutical factory with several different technologies in the UK.

The factory in Stockton-on-Tees produces ingredients from biological sources for pharmaceutical treatments, such as microbes, cell cultures and viral vectors, used to deliver genetic material into cells.

The investment, which forms part of a ¥90bn global package unveiled by its Japanese owner in June, will boost the 890-strong workforce by a further 350. It employed 490 people in 2011, when it was acquired by Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies.

The site, where the chemical group ICI’s headquarters once stood, produces Covid vaccines for the US company Novavax. The factory began manufacturing the key ingredient of the jab in February and has been contracted to produce it for 60m doses, although it could ramp up the amount needed for up to 180m . News of the contract set the town “buzzing” when it was first announced in January in Teesside, which was once a global centre of steel and chemicals production but has endured decades of industrial decline.

The factory also produces cell cultures for a range of monoclonal antibody treatments for conditions from cancer to inflammatory diseases as well as the treatment of Covid-19. Globally, the Fujifilm biotech business is working on half a dozen Covid projects, including vaccines, therapies and monoclonal antibody treatments.

The £400m investment triples Billingham’s cell culture capabilities, increases its gene therapy production capacity tenfold and will add the ability to produce and deliver mRNA technologies in the manufacture of vaccines. The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna Covid jabs are made using mRNA technologies.

Martin Meeson, the chief executive of Fijifilm Diosynth, said: “We all know that there has never been a more important time to invest in biopharmaceuticals. With a strong growing demand for microbial, cell culture and viral gene therapy services, we are adding the capacity and latest technologies within one campus to offer a range of modalities to build an offering that will deliver novel promising treatments to patients for years to come.”

The new facilities are expected to be up and running by late 2023.

Boris Johnson said: “This is a significant investment in British biopharmaceutical manufacturing and will power our response to some of today’s most urgent global health challenges and deliver life-changing medicines and vaccines to patients in need.”

Separately, GSK announced it was investing £30m in a new institute of molecular and computational medicine at the University of Oxford’s Nuffield department of medicine. The collaboration aims to deepen understanding of complex diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, for which there are no cures.

Other recent big UK investments by pharmaceutical firms have been in R&D, rather than manufacturing. AstraZeneca unveiled a new £1bn R&D centre in Cambridge last week, the biggest science lab in Britain along with the Francis Crick Institute in London, while the US drugmaker Merck is building a £1bn research hub nearby.

Investments in pharma manufacturing in recent years include GSK putting £275m into three of its UK factories at Barnard Castle in northern England, Montrose in Scotland and Ware in Hertfordshire in 2016. Pfizer put £10m into its Sandwich site in Kent in April to speed up the manufacture of medicines.

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