How engineering could transform COVID vaccine production

Engineers may have been in the background of the fight against COVID-19. But they have been putting their talents to work everywhere.

Some engineers have been helping develop new techniques for making vaccines work. Methods for delivering the vaccine into your body more effectively, for example.

Many others have been working on designing and implementing supply chains. Because the scale of the vaccine roll-out is vast. Existing techniques aren’t going to cut it.

Step forward, the engineers. At King’s College London, one team of engineers in particular may have just created the solution the world is looking for.

Their new technology may be able to accelerate vaccine manufacturing to a far faster rate than normal.

The scale of the problem

Current global manufacturing capacity can make about 5 billion vaccine doses every year. But around 30% of that capacity is already blocked off to create flu vaccines.

That is a problem. Because there are currently 8 billion people in the world. Estimates say that at least 60% or more of those 8 billion need to be vaccinated if COVID-19 is going to stop being a problem.

Improving the traditional vaccine manufacturing system would take several years and cost hundreds of millions of pounds. We cannot afford to wait that long.

The speed of traditional vaccine development

Only seven new vaccines have been developed and delivered to market in the past quarter of a century.

The average vaccine takes about 10 years to develop. Before COVID vaccines, the fastest-ever vaccine to be developed was for mumps. It took four years.

But even though the scientists and engineers working on the various COVID vaccines have broken every record to develop a working solution this time, there is still that problem of manufacturing capacity.

The new engineering solution to vaccine manufacturing

Harris Makatsoris is Professor of Sustainable Manufacturing Systems at King’s College London. Last year, Professor Makatsoris undertook some high-level chemical engineer, electrical engineer, and mechanical engineer recruitment to create a team to solve that vaccine manufacturing problem.

Their solution is called the “Factory-in-a-Box”. This – unsurprisingly – box-shaped device sits on your desk next to a computer. With that computer’s help, a Factory-in-a-Box can mix 600 doses of RNA-type vaccines every minute. That’s around 300 000 per day.

This could be a complete game-changer in terms of making vaccines faster than conventional methods and at scale.

Engineers and the quest for scientific discovery

After receiving a Royal Academy of Engineering Award for his team’s work, Professor Makatsoris said in an interview that he believed that “engineering plays a major role in supporting scientific discovery”.

In the future, he suggested that all kinds of engineering jobs will be created or altered in order to focus on new manufacturing techniques for biopharmaceuticals, gene therapies, and more.

In addition, engineering recruitment will be required to develop technology platforms which can accelerate the work of chemists – and identify ways in which their discoveries can be brought to market a lot faster and at a reduced cost.

Think you might be the kind of engineer who can help in the quest for scientific discovery?

Ernest Gordon is a specialist engineering recruitment agency. We help people across the UK find their ideal manufacturing, construction and engineering jobs every day.

Let’s talk. About your C.V., your experience, and how we can find you your dream job.