Pharmaceutical drugs — and the people who use them — depend heavily on innovation. Researchers win Nobel Prizes for new discoveries, while those who benefit from those discoveries put their lives in the hands of those who treat them.
While the pharma industry is no stranger to the public spotlight, the COVID-19 pandemic took chaos and expectations to all-new levels. President Donald Trump announced Operation Warp Speed in May, his public effort to fast-track a vaccine for the novel coronavirus. People around the world who only paid attention to pharma when they had personal needs began following news on drug trials with the same enthusiasm they had watching their favorite sports teams just a few months earlier.
As teams of scientists all over the globe race to develop a vaccine under the world’s watchful eye, the quiet parts of pharma remain hidden in the background. Most people don’t think about vaccines as anything but the medicine itself, but effective vaccines require entire businesses to fulfill their promises. Shipping and logistics, manufacturing of materials, availability of natural resources — when it comes to pharmaceuticals, the drugs are just the beginning.
At the forefront of vaccine-related problems today, glass shortages have spurred the U.S. government into hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of investments. Even if a lab somehow found and proved a vaccine tomorrow, it would take months for glass providers to meet demand. Every vaccine depends on glass and more glass, from research to trials to delivery. Somehow, in an industry where innovation is the primary export, no one stopped to ask, “Why are we so dependent on a single flawed material?”
Now is the moment for pharma to rethink glass. Old industry players have been providing the same materials with the same flaws to medical providers for more than 100 years. Meanwhile, scientists have come up with a wealth of exciting developments, a few of which will have already begun to reshape pharma into a more agile, more dependable future.
What happened to all the glass?
The world can’t simply put a hold on things like windows and coffee tables to divert glass production toward vaccine needs. It doesn’t work like that. Vials for vaccines require specialized glass that can survive transport, resist contamination, and retain its form in a wide range of temperatures. This is called borosilicate glass.
Vaccinating the United States alone would require a historically impressive performance from existing producers of vaccine-grade glass. Vaccinating the 8 billion people of the world is out of the question unless someone changes the game.
Schott, one of the largest producers of the glass used for vaccines, controls much of the market. With such a monopoly (and with so few contenders who have the resources to compete), glass has remained mostly stagnant since the invention of borosilicate glass in the 1890s. Schott and a handful of smaller competitors enjoy total domination at the cost of innovation from smaller disruptors.
At least, they have enjoyed that domination until now. In the wake of the pandemic, however, things are about to change for the better.
Why traditional glass won’t remain on top
Borosilicate, the 100-plus-year-old incumbent, comes with more than a few problems.
Manufacturers create thousands of vials at a time. This process moves swiftly, and at certain stages, vials inevitably contact one another. While companies invest heavily in minimizing this risk, both by limiting contact and by strict quality analysis, some vials make it through with damages. Breakage of glass vials can cause delays and contamination, shutting down production lines in the process.
Traditional glass doesn’t always break cleanly. Sometimes, contact and stress can create an issue with small particles, which leads to vials becoming unusable or potentially dangerous if flaws go undetected. Sometimes faulty glass leads to delamination, where the medicine interacts with its own container, which can cause harmful side effects. With so many vials in production, even a small percentage of defects can lead to severe consequences.
Carrying serious issues of fragility, expense, transport, and safety, glass deserved to be dethroned decades ago. Not only do buyers of medical glass deserve better, but the patients deserve the safety and security of products that work without the risks of outdated options. The world should have moved on from issues with particles, metal ions, and risks of delamination long ago.
But why talk about the past when the future looks so much brighter?
The future of glass without glass
The world needs a better glass that focuses on the needs of real patients, not the acceptable failure rates of slow companies. Healthcare providers need a glass alternative that is faster to create, more flexible and durable than existing options, more resistant to chemical compromise, and at least as cost effective as glass itself. After decades of waiting, SiO2 has come up with the answer.
“Many drug development and drug formulation innovations can be limited due to variables associated with traditional glass vials and syringes,” says Dr. Robert Langer, David H. Koch Institute professor at MIT. “The SiO2 vials and syringes eliminate these variables and allow drug development partners to bring their innovations to life.”
From a distance, SiO2 appears to be a combination of glass and plastic, but this revolutionary material is much more than that. Fifty times thinner than a human hair, SiO2 is a material coating for plastic vials that mimics glass without the drawbacks of the borosilicate incumbent. SiO2 offers the oxygen and moisture barrier properties of glass without risks of breakage, delamination, and rogue particles. Where traditional glass is built for convenience, SiO2 keeps the patient top of mind.
While traditional glass manufacturers may need up to 18 months to scale their manufacturing operations, SiO2 can do it in just four months. With a COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon, shorter timelines mean lives saved.
The world does not need a marginally better version of glass. It needs a revolution in the industry, not just for COVID-19 but for the future of pharmaceuticals. After more than 100 years of waiting, SiO2 has created an alternative to borosilicate glass that is faster to produce and more effective than its predecessor. Incumbents in this market have been comfortable for generations, but finally, a contender has arrived to challenge the throne.