The US government is spending millions to prevent a shortage of glass vaccine vials

A precious commodity.
A precious commodity.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

This week, the US government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) announced it would accelerate the race to distribute a Covid-19 vaccine by awarding millions of dollars for development.

Sound familiar? It should: In late April, BARDA announced a round of investments in the pharmaceutical companies that are developing the vaccines themselves; they’ve been adding to the list over time. But now, it’s announced a plan to make sure any proven vaccines can actually get to people: by kick-starting production of glass vials.

On Tuesday (June 9), BARDA awarded $204 million to the upstate New York-based company Corning to make glass vials needed to bottle and store vaccines. The money will help bring one of Corning’s New York factories to maximum capacity, and equip two others in New Jersey and North Carolina with the specialized hardware to do the same.

The goal is to ensure that once a vaccine makes it through all three stages of clinical testing, it can be widely distributed. This means ramping up glass production now to support clinical trials and other research, and eventually distribution. In early May, Rick Bright, then-head of BARDA, filed a 60-page whistleblowing complaint about the US federal government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which in part warned of a looming glass shortage. (The Trump administration fired Bright shortly after.)

It might seem surprising that glass could be a significant bottleneck for vaccine distribution. But the type of glass needed to transport vaccines safely makes up just 10% of all the glass that companies produce. It’s more expensive, and requires specialized equipment to manufacture.

The majority of all glass is silicon dioxide—one part silicon, two parts oxygen. (Crystallized silicon dioxide is Quartz, our namesake mineral.) Added chemicals can change the glass’s characteristics; the glass in our kitchenware and windows, called soda-lime glass, includes sodium, calcium, aluminum, and magnesium. It’s cheap to make, but not the most chemically stable: Some of those molecules will leach out into the liquid, turning the glass foggy as liquid takes their place.

This chemical interaction happens at the molecular level, and there’s no danger to anyone eating out of glass containers, says Robert Schaut, the scientific director for Corning Pharmaceutical Technologies. But the chemical compounds in pharmaceuticals like vaccines cannot have any contamination—especially when their own makeup could speed up the leaching process.

This is where pharmaceutical glassware comes in. This class of glass, called borosilicate glass, has higher levels of aluminum and boron, which decrease the glass’s reactivity, making it safe to transport drugs.

The issue with borosilicate glass, sometimes, is that at high temperatures, some of the boron can dislodge from the glass and resettle somewhere else in the vial, eventually creating microscopic glass particles that flake off. The product inside gets contaminated again. Corning’s pharmaceutical glass, called Valor Glass, “was intentionally designed to have optimized properties—without boron,” says Schaut. It took years of tinkering to find a chemical composition that allowed essentially no reactivity at any temperature.

Borosilicate glass could work to hold new vaccines and drugs, but Valor glass is an improved version. Both require more technical equipment and know-how than run of the mill soda-lime glass. That’s why Bright and others have been worried about shortages.

The goal of the US Operation Warp Speed is to have 300 million Covid-19 vaccines ready by January. The hope is that, with $204 million in funding, Corning will be able to support the pharmaceutical companies that BARDA has already partnered with, including Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca. Which vaccine its vials will be holding is still unclear, although Moderna, a Cambridge-based biotech startup, announced this week that it would be starting a 30,000 phase 3 clinical trial, next month. 

Once there’s a vaccine and the vials to transport the doses in, doctors will need enough supplies on hand to administer millions of shots. On Monday, BARDA awarded a $143 million to SiO2 Materials Science in Auburn, Alabama to expand its syringe production.