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Jill Wechsler is Pharmaceutical Technology's Washington Editor, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Even before Emergent disclosed that it had to discard 15 million doses of the J&J vaccine drug substance, FDA inspectors had uncovered multiple deficiencies and quality control issues.
For anyone who was wondering in recent weeks what was holding up FDA Emergency Use Authorization for Johnson & Johnson (J&J) to distribute vaccine produced by the Emergent BioSolutions Bayview facility in Baltimore, the reason is clear from the multiple red flags and violations at the facility cited in an April 2020 field inspection report. Even before Emergent disclosed that it had to discard 15 million doses of the J&J vaccine drug substance, FDA inspectors had uncovered multiple deficiencies and quality control issues. Journalists and investigators have disclosed additional government reports and complaints about Emergent’s operations and practices, raising multiple questions about how and why federal health officials continued to ramp up contracts with the company.
A picture of wide manufacturing violations appears in a recently disclosed FDA form 483 report on a site visit to Emergent’s Baltimore vaccine plant conducted from April 9, 2020 to April 20, 2020. The report describes inadequate controls for computer and records systems, disregard of established test procedures and laboratory control mechanisms, failure to investigate deviations from test methods, unclear quality control unit responsibilities and procedures, and lack of employee training on current good manufacturing practices (cGMP) practices.
Most prescient is the last observation citing deficient operations to prevent contamination or mix-ups of products by having separate or defined areas for holding rejected components before disposition. The FDA investigator noted the absence of a report on a non-conforming material held in the “reject cage,” which was needed to explain the rejection and how the material was disposed. The year-old inspection report indicates that Trump administration officials and subsequently Biden staffers were aware of the serious quality control issues at the Emergent facility, even before the discovery that millions of doses of J&J vaccine doses were, in fact, discarded due to a mix-up with vaccine ingredient being produced for AstraZeneca. Despite the serious concerns raised by FDA and other analysts, pandemic preparedness officials continued to award ever-larger contracts to Emergent for vaccine ingredient production.
In an unprecedented move, J&J announced last week that it would assume full responsibility for manufacturing its vaccine drug substance at the Emergent facility. The company is shifting operations and quality experts to the site and “significantly increasing the number of manufacturing, quality, and technical operations personnel” to work with Emergent staffers. At the same time, Emergent was instructed by the Biden administration to halt production of the AstraZeneca vaccine, offering to assist the company in identifying other facilities to handle its production.
Even so, Emergent executives downplayed the situation, emphasizing in a press release that it was receiving an additional $23 million from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to improve its manufacturing operations to expand J&J vaccine production. CEO Robert Kramer highlighted the company’s long-standing collaboration with the federal government in expanding vaccine production, and that the Bayview facility remains an Emergent property. This followed an Emergent statement that its quality control checks had identified only one single noncompliant batch, and that there was nothing unusual in having to discard some material in the complex vaccine production process.
The continued award of ever-larger manufacturing contracts to Emergent reflects its political connections in Washington as well as still limited US capacity for producing large quantities of critical vaccines. J&J has imported its vaccine substance from its plant in the Netherlands and also signed an agreement for Merck to produce its vaccine and has expanded its collaboration with Catalent to ramp up production of its vaccine at its Bloomington, Ind. facility.
One result of “uneven” production from the Emergent Baltimore plant is that federal health authorities now indicate that J&J will provide less than a million vaccine doses in the coming weeks, 85% less than the expected 5 million doses a week.