China enters the mRNA arena

May 16, 2022

mRNA was the key breakthrough in vaccine production technology that allowed the first COVID-19 vaccines to be produced in 10 months—compared with four years for the previous record-holder.

Pioneers of the technology saw cycle times reduced from two weeks to five or six days. Digital workflows eliminated unproductive waiting time, reducing variability in turn. Batch-record review went much more quickly, and manual error rates were cut by 80%. Further, digitalization reduced operator labor by 30-40%.

And now, China’s Walvax Biotechnology is poised to build the world’s most populous country’s first COVID-19 production facility based on its own mRNA technology, developed in cooperation with Suzhou Abogen Biosciences (AbogenBio).

And to help ensure the facility achieves a world-class level of safe, reliable and intelligent operations, Walvax has chosen Honeywell to provide the automation, building and energy management solutions required of this highly digital process.

The plant is to be built in the Vaccine Industrial Park of Yuxi High-Tech Zone in Yunnan Province. The Honeywell solutions deployed will promote quality and consistency, while also optimizing production and accelerating time to market. The project also enables production management visualization by monitoring assets and processes through the employment of technologies such as digital twins and dynamic modeling.

“The completion and delivery of Walvax Biotech’s COVID-19 mRNA vaccine plant is a key step in the industrialization of mRNA vaccines," says Huang Zhen, chairman of Yuxi Walvax Biotech Co., Ltd. “Working with Honeywell means we can achieve superior production, operations and management to ultimately provide world-class, high-quality production conditions for COVID-19 vaccines, jointly advance the digitalization and intelligent development of the vaccine production industry, and build a state-of-the-art vaccine production base, propelling Walvax Biotech to become a top-tier enterprise in vaccine R&D and production.”

“Providing digital and intelligent solutions for Walvax Biotech’s COVID-19 mRNA vaccine plant is another important achievement for Honeywell in expanding our reach throughout the life sciences industry,” says Shawn Opatka, vice president - life sciences, Honeywell Process Solutions. “Honeywell’s automation control and smart-connected plant solutions optimize plant manufacturing operations in terms of production, quality, compliance and operations to realize sustainable, full lifecycle management.”

A move toward globalization

Opatka also believes that mRNA's expansion into China signals a globalization of the technology that will also make the world better equipped to respond more rapidly to new viruses in the future.

Another convergent trend is the movement of pharmaceutical manufacturing from batch to continuous processes, further ramping up productivity and product quality as well.

"There's some really positive research in this area indicating that mRNA may well benefit from a continuous manufacturing modality," Opatka says.

Automation that removes the apparent complexity of sophisticated manufacturing processes can also help promulgate its use in many parts of the developing world, Opatka adds. "We're solving a lot of the problems today that will make it easier for companies to upskill a workforce to make more complex products."

The Walvax Biotechnology COVID-19 mRNA vaccine recently obtained the approval of Phase III clinical trials issued by the drug regulatory authorities of Mexico, Indonesia and Nepal pharmaceutical supervision departments, respectively, indicating that the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine has entered the phase III clinical trial stage in the three aforementioned countries.