The Future of Manufacturing a Medicine in America

Whenever biopharmaceutical experts and policymakers discuss medical innovation, they seem to focus only on drug discovery and development and access. While these aspects of innovation are critical to ensuring patients have safe and effective treatments, they don’t provide a complete picture of the biopharmaceutical innovation model and the total investment needed to get the right medicine to the right patient at the right time. What’s missing? An understanding of the role of biopharmaceutical manufacturing and the need for a supportive policy environment in order to ensure the United States maintains its place as the leader in discovering, developing and delivering innovative medicines.

In the past decade, manufacturing has become an even more complex element of the biopharmaceutical innovation ecosystem as there have been several paradigm shifts in clinical treatments and pharmacology that make drug manufacturing significantly more challenging. First, therapeutic innovations previously developed to treat millions of patients — the so-called “blockbuster” medicines — have been replaced by the precision medicine model. This model integrates genetic information to help researchers understand which particular subgroup of patients will most likely benefit from a specific treatment. This scientific progress is leading to the development of medicines targeted for much smaller patient populations. Thus, biopharmaceutical companies now need to manufacture smaller batches and incorporate shorter production lines into their manufacturing process, which means they need to be more nimble and think beyond just efficiency to ensure production levels match the new innovative landscape in their manufacturing practices.

Second, diseases today are more often managed with medicines administered through intricate delivery systems. Complex therapies deliver important drugs directly to the site of the disease by bypassing traditional modes of delivery through oral intake. So now manufacturers have to think about how to make both the delivery device as well as the medicine.

Third, certain diseases are managed or prevented through biologics or vaccines. Unlike synthesized medicines which are made by combining specific chemical ingredients in a laboratory environment, these therapies are derived from living cell lines which cannot be fully characterized by traditional methods in a lab. For biologics and vaccines, the final product is influenced by the manufacturing process as “the product is the process.” An example of a therapy that requires this type of manufacturing complexity is a breakthrough vaccine for pneumococcal diseases. You may wonder what does it take to manufacture a single dose of that vaccine? It takes no less than 2.5 years, the collaboration of 1,700 researchers, engineers and other manufacturing experts, more than 400 raw materials and 678 quality tests in 581 steps to produce a single dose. Any minute deficiency in this long and laborious manufacturing process and/or ingredient integrity could possibly lead to failure.

Beyond better health, the benefit of manufacturing excellence is also captured in the economic value it generates for local communities in states all across the country. In the United States alone, there are close to 300,000 biopharmaceutical manufacturing jobs, with an average salary of close to $100,000 annually. This average salary is in the top 2 percent of all manufacturing jobs in the U.S. Pfizer currently has 17 manufacturing sites in 11 states and Puerto Rico that employ more than 12,000 people, and has invested $2 billion in these sites over the past five years. Estimates put Pfizer’s contribution to both direct and indirect jobs in the U.S. at 51,000.

The Pfizer facilities are not only responsible for manufacturing safe and innovative medicines, but some of the sites also produce active product ingredients. The API is the actual substance or “raw material” used to produce the medicine that patients consume. In fact, the Pfizer facility in Kalamazoo, Mich., is so cost-efficient that it manufactures APIs for methylprednisolone that Pfizer then sells to manufacturers in China and India, something not commonly observed in other traditional manufacturing sectors.

To make biopharmaceutical manufacturing a centerpiece of U.S. economic growth, policymakers need to address a few policy hurdles. First, they need to reform the U.S. tax code to encourage companies to further invest in U.S. pharmaceutical manufacturing. Next, the Food and Drug Administration ought to forge a proactive partnership with industry to develop practical regulatory solutions to advance and encourage domestic biopharmaceutical manufacturing expertise while protecting world-class quality control and good manufacturing processes. Lastly, the federal government needs to ensure appropriate and timely implementation of Section 3016 of the 21st Century Cures Act, which allows the FDA to issue grants to further the study of continuous manufacturing of drugs and biologics.

In an effort to get important medicines to patients in need, biopharmaceutical companies discover, develop, manage access and manufacture medicines. The innovation cycle is not complete if a company is not able to appropriately navigate the complicated yet crucial manufacturing process. A pro-active, supportive policy environment is the linchpin to ensuring the United States remains at the forefront of biopharmaceutical innovation and manufacturing.

Robert Popovian is the vice president of Pfizer U.S. Government Relations. He has two decades of experience in the biopharmaceutical health care industry and has published and presented extensively on the impact of pharmaceuticals and health care policies on health care costs and clinical outcomes.

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