Understanding the Glass Shortage in Pharma

Imagine someone announces a vaccine for COVID-19 tomorrow. People throw parades — at respectable social distances, of course. Politicians speak about the resilience of the population and the end of a global nightmare. Restaurants and gyms get ready to welcome back the masses, schools send out emails to prepare for fall classes, and then…everyone has to take it all back. Why? Because the pharma system isn’t even close to ready to distribute vaccines on a large scale. Dr. Rick Bright, former head of the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), was recently fired from his position for what he says were political reasons. Among other issues Bright raised that may have angered others within the government, he claimed that manufacturers of traditional borosilicate glass had already exhausted their supplies in May. Further, he projected that it could take two years to produce enough new glass to meet U.S. vaccine needs, to say nothing of the rest of the world. Others, including Bill Gates, have warned of the same problem. Even if researchers manage to discover an effective treatment for the virus outright, the current system relies on the production of glass vials, and the current producers are woefully unequipped to meet demand. Despite public projections of confidence, the behind-the-scenes truth is one of bare shelves and limited operating capacity. Don’t listen to the executives of “big glass” and their reassurances that all is well. Medical researchers and smaller pharma companies asking for glass can’t get it. Industry experts all agree that the world doesn’t have enough of the glass necessary for vaccines. Those who stand to profit can mislead all they want, but they can’t produce more glass from thin air.

An Old Story of a Controlled Supply

The biggest players in pharma glass have owned the industry for a long time. Schott, the biggest company in this space, is more than 100 years old and named after the man who first invented borosilicate glass, which vaccines still use today. The chairman of Schott has made the media rounds recently to reassure the world that the glass shortage does not exist. Meanwhile, smaller pharma companies have claimed that Schott continues to reject their orders. When the biggest supplier controls the overwhelming majority of the supply, smaller outfits have no power to innovate or push back. This sales-first, patient-second attitude of reserving glass containers for the eventual “winners” of the COVID-19 vaccine race puts lives and livelihoods at risk. Why should one roadblock determine who gets to help the world and who must sit on the sidelines? The time has come for change in the pharma glass industry.

Coronavirus Fears Caused the Glass Shortage

The pharmaceutical glass packaging industry is a $15 billion market all on its own. How did things get so dire, so quickly? Fears regarding the spread of COVID-19 drove BARDA and the federal government to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in glass alternatives. Federal institutions recognized that the looming need for a vaccine necessitated a boost in manufacturing, but existing players still don’t have the capacity to meet that demand. And that doesn’t just hurt COVID patients. Millions of people receive vaccines every day. They need and deserve safe equipment just as much as people suffering from the novel coronavirus deserve the same. Because of the uncertainty around the future, though, people who need vaccines for non-COVID medical reasons will find supplies scarce. If the industry can somehow meet the needs of COVID patients in the short term, it will come at the cost of everyone else.

Finding an Alternative

Glass doesn’t have to hold up the whole operation. Instead of pouring everything into more glass and depending on the existing monopoly to pull through, pharma should rethink the entire idea of glass and look to newer, more innovative companies to rise to the occasion. Pharma glass has seen only small, incremental changes over the last 100 years. Improvements in processes have made it easier to produce borosilicate products, but the products (and their problems) remain largely the same. The world needs a better answer to glass, and it needs that answer soon. A vaccine for COVID-19 will arrive, and when it does, the world will need an established distribution network to return to something that resembles normality. As new technologies have revolutionized industries and sub-industries for the last two decades, the time has come for pharma glass to experience the same disruption. Slow, outdated industry giants must make way for new companies with new visions for the future of pharma glass. Only by tackling the very idea of glass can the global pharma industry meet the needs of a post-COVID population.

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