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Lonza confident of 2020 target for Moderna COVID-19 vaccine supply

VISP, Switzerland (Reuters) - Lonza LONN.S is confident that U.S. and Swiss plants it is building to help make Moderna's MRNA.O COVID-19 vaccine candidate will be ready for commercial production this year, executives at the Swiss company said on Tuesday.

A logo is pictured on the Ibex building of Lonza, where the Moderna mRNA coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine will be produced, in Visp, Switzerland, September 29, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

New production lines at Lonza’s site in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, aim to start making vaccine ingredients in November, while three lines in Visp, deep in a valley in the Swiss Alps - to supply 300 million vaccine doses annually - should begin delivering by December.

There is no approved COVID-19 vaccine yet, but several are in advanced trials, including from Pfizer Inc PFE.N, Johnson & Johnson JNJ.N and Moderna, whose candidate relies on technology never previously approved that enlists human cells to help trigger an immune response.

Torsten Schmidt, who heads Lonza’s Visp facility, where Moderna’s $210 million production lines are about 50% completed, said he has secured the equipment needed to avoid any last-minute setbacks.

“The delivery of the equipment was critical,” Schmidt said in an interview. “You typically wait 12 months, you’re talking here about 4-5 months. In the end, the CEO has been talking to the CEOs of suppliers, to get the equipment delivered.”

Lonza, whose shares are up 60% this year, has a 10-year contract to supply ingredients to Moderna, including for up to 1 billion doses annually of COVID-19 vaccine.

The ingredients include a synthetic version of messenger RNA (mRNA), genetic material, which is packed inside tiny fat droplets called nanolipids, to instruct human cells to make a non-replicating form of the coronavirus’s spike protein and trigger an immune response in the body.

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They will be frozen at -70 degrees Celsius, then shipped from Visp to Spain's Laboratorios Farmacéuticos Rovi SA ROVI.MC for "fill and finish," the final stage of manufacture.

STILL HIRING

Lonza is still hiring some of the roughly 200 workers it needs to operate the Moderna production lines in Visp, located where the Alps tip up towards the nearby ski towns of Zermatt, near the famed Matterhorn, and Saas Fe.

In all, Lonza expects to have some 4,000 workers in Visp by January, from 3,500 now, following a hiring spree fueled by its manufacture of drugs for other customers, as well as Moderna. They include Roche ROG.S, Sanofi SASY.PA and California's Humanigen HGEN.PK, with which it has partnered on another COVID-19 project.

However ready Lonza is, when precisely Moderna’s vaccine becomes available depends on its trials and regulators. The U.S. company has said about 20 million doses should be ready by the year’s end.

Already Lonza’s drugs unit revenue has seen double-digit percentage gains, prompting the Basel-based company earlier this year to seek to offload its $1.8 billion-per-year speciality chemicals business, after sales of products, such as animal feed supplements and resins have stagnated.

Talks with potential buyers are ongoing, Renzo Cicillini, Lonza’s Visp site head, said.

‘A LITTLE PROUD’

In Visp, two hours by train from both Zurich and Milan, Italy, its roughly 8,000 residents are accustomed to Lonza’s taking a behind-the-scenes role in making drugs for better-known companies, the town’s mayor, Niklaus Furger, said.

But the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 1 million people and wreaked global economic havoc, has left the people of Visp hoping for success that would put it on the map.

“The idea that a vaccine might just be produced in Visp with which we could fight against the pandemic, that would be excellent,” Furger told Reuters at Visp city hall. “For certain, the attention of the world would be trained on Visp along with Lonza, something that admittedly would make us all a little proud.”

Reporting by John Miller; editing by Barbara Lewis

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