Pfizer to invest $470m to expand research on its coronavirus vaccine technology

The drugmaker will construct a building and renovate existing facilities on its campus in Pearl River, New York

Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine, Comirnaty, has almost doubled the company's annual revenue, bringing more than $36 billion in 2021 sales alone. AFP
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Pfizer, one of the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies, will spend $470 million to expand its vaccine research facilities about 40 kilometres north-west of New York City, where the company hopes to maintain its edge in the field of messenger RNA, the technology behind its coronavirus inoculation.

The drug company will construct a building and renovate existing facilities on its campus in Pearl River, New York, which has been the focal point for laboratory research driving its vaccine programmes, including the one for the coronavirus in partnership with BioNTech.

Discussions about expanding Pearl River began before the pandemic, and Pfizer’s coronavirus research put more strain on its facilities. Scientists there were responsible for designing the vaccine, testing it on animals and conducting other quality checks and analysis.

They have also carried out research and development work on vaccines including Pfizer’s Prevnar for potentially lethal pneumococcus, the world’s best-selling vaccine until the coronavirus shot arrived.

“We’ve been in a constant situation of running out of space,” said Steve Bjornson, vice president and chief operating officer of vaccine research and development, in an interview. “We’re trying to keep up with the portfolio and enable the expansion of mRNA capacity.”

The coronavirus vaccine, Comirnaty, has almost doubled Pfizer’s annual revenue, bringing more than $36 billion in 2021 sales alone. Pfizer is aiming to replicate that success by applying mRNA to other diseases.

Expanding Pearl River will bring additional lab space to develop a new portfolio of mRNA vaccines hoped to prevent influenza and other viral pathogens, Mr Bjornson said.

It will also benefit existing projects, such as Pfizer’s experimental vaccine against respiratory syncytial virus, which uses a more traditional technology.

Pfizer’s board signed off on the 24,154 square foot expansion at the end of June. The drug company, which is headquartered in Manhattan, aims to complete the Pearl River construction in the first quarter of 2026.

“This is a critical time for vaccine science, and we’re at the centre of it and we want to stay there,” Mr Bjornson said. “When anyone thinks of Pfizer, I hope they think of vaccines — and that we are, in effect, the best and most advanced mRNA player in the world.”

The Pearl River campus, which straddles farmland and forest, hosts more than 1,000 Pfizer employees, hundreds of whom worked on the coronavirus vaccine. The expansion will create lab capacity for up to 370 additional staff.

Mr Bjornson said he hopes the state-of-the-art facilities will give Pfizer an edge in an increasingly competitive battle for scientists with expertise in mRNA vaccines.

The company considered building facilities in other biotechnology hubs, such as Cambridge, Massachusetts, and San Francisco, but ultimately decided Pearl River's proximity to New York City, the Hudson Valley, Connecticut and New Jersey was preferable.

“You have access to a wide variety of lifestyles,” he said.

Pfizer recently made a separate $29 million investment to establish a lab in Pearl River that is used to study potentially dangerous infectious agents such as the coronavirus.

The lab, commissioned in December 2020, has a biosafety level 3 rating, qualifying it to study infectious agents or toxins that may be transmitted through the air and cause lethal infections. Pfizer is committing another $20m to double the capacity of the lab.

Updated: July 23, 2022, 9:40 AM