The world’s largest healthcare company—in the running to develop a COVID-19 vaccine—is scaling up its ability to manufacture one billion doses, tapping New Jersey-based Catalent’s operation in Bloomington to help lead the charge. The facility has been growing at a breathtaking pace in recent years and had a new building and production line in the works even before Johnson & Johnson selected the plant to help manufacture its COVID-19 vaccine candidate. Now Catalent is stepping on the gas, ramping up faster than ever before for an end goal unlike any other in history.
“We don’t know for sure who the winners will be [in development of a COVID-19 vaccine]; clinical trials and data rule in medicine,” says Catalent Bloomington General Manager Denis Johnson. “When you go from a clinical level to having a vaccine for the majority of the country, you need a lot of capacity.”
And that capacity is exactly what Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies is building: the “rapid scaling” of its manufacturing capabilities with the goal of providing more than one billion doses of a COVID-19 vaccine to the world.
Supported by $1 billion of co-investment from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Johnson & Johnson, Janssen expects its lead COVID-19 vaccine candidate to move into Phase 1 clinical studies in September. New Jersey-based Catalent Inc. says its Bloomington facility will begin manufacturing Janssen’s clinical vaccine in July, including formulation, filling into vials, packaging and labeling.
“We have to get ready. If the Colts were still playing right now, I’d compare it to the two-minute drill, speeding up [our expansion plans],” says Johnson. “We’re going to have to ramp up by 300 employees in six months and finish the construction of the building, so we’re having to accelerate that line to meet the timing Janssen needs. But we’re going to be able to do that, and take the growth that we had planned over the next, potentially, 24 months and do it over six months. We’re really going to have to move faster.”
Johnson says the Bloomington factory has already proven its ability to be speedy. A year ago, Catalent planned to grow its workforce of 950 to 1,100 by the end of 2019, but the company blew by 2019 projections and now employs close to 1,300. The Janssen agreement is slamming the pedal to the metal; Catalent says it is essentially adding a small factory to the larger operation, as the new line will be somewhat of a standalone operation dedicated to the vaccine.
Johnson says the biggest challenge will be on-boarding, and especially, training employees “in a regulated industry, where we have to get them trained to a level of proficiency, and we can perform in a high-quality way.”
“It’s like a football team with all these different roles, and they all train differently; for example, it can take up to six months to train someone operating a highly-automated line,” says Johnson. We’re blessed to be in an area where I think we can do it. It’s a challenge—probably our biggest challenge—but there’s no better place to do it than Indiana. If you had this same plant in other states, and you had to hire 300 people, you might not be able to do it. I have high confidence we can do it in Bloomington.”
Catalent plans to start hiring for the more technical positions in July, followed by less technical positions in late fall, and the facility aims to begin 24/7 production operations in January 2021.
While Johnson says he’s optimistic about Janssen’s chances in winning the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, the field is thick. The National Institutes of Health has partnered with 16 pharmaceutical companies to accelerate the development of COVID-19 treatments and vaccines, especially those that have “high near-term potential.” In addition to Johnson & Johnson, the roster includes Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Company.
“Catalent, overall as a company…is engaged in more than 30 treatments, cures, vaccines or other medicines related to COVID-19. I can’t tell you exactly how many we’re doing in Bloomington [for confidentiality reasons], but I will say there are several,” says Johnson. “If Janssen isn’t ‘the one’—but my read is they have a good chance—there are other opportunities out there. We’re in a business that was growing rapidly regardless of Covid.”
Hinting that additional announcements will likely be coming very soon for the Bloomington facility, Johnson is confident Catalent will be on the front lines of battling COVID-19.
“I want [Janssen’s vaccine candidate] to be the cure for the country, the state, for my fellow Hoosiers,” says Johnson. “But I also believe our services in treating diseases, whether COVID-19 or others, will continue to be in high demand.”
Johnson says it’s “not quite the same” to connect with new office employees virtually, rather than in person.
Johnson says Catalent employees have an “amplified” sense of purpose, knowing their work could be part of the solution for COVID-19.