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The Covid Vaccine Will Require Billions Of Tiny Glass Vials

Topic: The Covid Vaccine Will Require Billions Of Tiny Glass Vials

At the height of Italy’s lockdown in April factories were shuttered across the country. But in Piombino Dese, a small town about 20 miles outside of Venice, the hulking glass-cutting machines at the Stevanato Group kept whirring along, spitting out millions of ampoules and syringes. Hundreds of employees donned face masks to work around the clock in three daily shifts, seven days a week – making everything from insulin pen cartridges to miniature glass barrels and — most pressingly — millions of tiny sterile vials, each one smaller than a single fluid ounce, that one day will house doses of a Covid-19 vaccine.

“Every Saturday and Sunday, even on Easter, I went to work alongside my employees to show that we were in the trenches as well,” says Franco Stevanato, the 46-year-old CEO of the group and grandson of its founder, Giovanni.

Vaccines, like most injectable drugs, need to be packaged in sterile glass. Glass is essentially impermeable to corrupting gases like oxygen while even high-grade plastic lets some air inside. Making these vials was a big business even before Covid-19 appeared in January. Last year, the global pharmaceutical industry purchased some 12 billion vials. The Stevanato Group, a 71-year-old family-owned firm, provided more than 2 billion of those (The company is also the world’s largest manufacturer of cartridges for insulin pens). A Covid-19 vaccine, which likely will have to be administered in two separate injections, will require billions of additional vials. Stevanato expects the pandemic to drive up demand for its glass vials by 20% over the next two years.

“We proactively started to supply our customers with everything they wanted [to fight] Covid-19,” says Franco. “There was no magic strategy. We tried to move quickly and took enormous risks by anticipating some investments, because it was the right time to do it.”

Other than making the actual glass, which they buy from big outfits like Corning and Schott, Stevanato does it all. They design the vials. They make the machines that craft and sterilize the containers. They work with medical regulators in 150 different markets around the world. And then many of their customers use Stevanato-made machines to package the drugs before shipping them to pharmacies and hospitals.

Those machines are a key differentiator. In 2007, when French pharma giant Sanofi needed a supply of sterile syringes that could quickly hit the market, Stevanato developed a ready-to-use syringe that didn’t require any additional sterilization. Stevanato built its own machines to wash and sterilize the syringes and patented the whole process, creating a product line that is now one of the company’s top earners.

“They really value quality and they really value customers and connecting the customer needs to their products,” says Ron Verkleeren, who manages the life sciences division at Corning and has worked with Stevanato since 2011. “That really sets them apart from the competition.”

Topic Discussed: The Covid Vaccine Will Require Billions Of Tiny Glass Vials