Why grandparents can't find vaccines: Scarcity of niche biotech ingredients

States are prioritizing older adults for COVID-19 immunization, but many eligible individuals still find it challenging to access vaccines. The Biden administration on January 21 issued a report citing lipid nanoparticle shortages as one of the "urgent gaps" affecting the nation's vaccine supply chain.

States are prioritizing older adults for COVID-19 immunization, but many eligible individuals still find it challenging to access vaccines. The Biden administration on January 21 issued a report citing lipid nanoparticle shortages as one of the "urgent gaps" affecting the nation's vaccine supply chain. A total of four lipids are required to encapsulate the vaccine's mRNA genetic material, of which the ionizable cationic lipid is the one needed in the highest volume. However, this lipid is subject to restrictive patents held by Acuitas Therapeutics and other biotechnology firms. Industry executives also point to possible bottlenecks in the production of nucleotides, DNA plasmids, and synthetic capping molecules. The latter are produced under patent by a single company, San Diego-based TriLink. Companies also had to construct devices for merging lipids and mRNA with nanoparticles. The Biden administration says it is using the Defense Production Act to assist Pfizer in procuring more specialized industrial machines for filtering ethanol out of lipid mixtures. Meanwhile, CDC data reveals that as of Thursday, Pfizer and Moderna jointly delivered 72.5 million COVID-19 vaccine doses, representing just 36% of the 200 million doses that the companies pledged to deliver by March 31. Drew Weissman, who helped pioneer mRNA vaccines at the University of Pennsylvania, says in hindsight, the government also should have funded the suppliers of raw materials needed to manufacture vaccines, similar to how it provided billions of dollars in advance contracts for vaccine makers.