Science Writing Competition 2021 – People’s Choice Award

by Kanya Alifia, MSc Student, Department of Chemical Engineering

Insect Cell Versus mRNA: Which Vaccine is Better?

The roads of London are alive once again after months of lockdown. Museums, galleries, pubs, and restaurants attract large crowds to enjoy the lifted restrictions. Cautious hugs are exchanged, elbow bumps replaced handshakes, and groups of six expanded into thirty when gathering outdoors. The transition from lockdown period to this joyful normalcy is thanks to the successful vaccination program in the United Kingdom. By 9 June 2021, 77% of adult population has been given the first dose of COVID-19 vaccines and 54% are already fully vaccinated [1].

The UK government as well as other high-income countries can easily manufacture their own vaccines and import more vaccines in a lower price due to their participation in vaccine research and development [2]. They are also more equipped with ultra-low cold storage equipment to distribute Pfizer mRNA vaccines at -70°C and pharmaceutical freezer for Moderna mRNA vaccines at -20°C [3].

However, this may not be the case in low-to-middle income countries especially those with high number of populations and live in a warmer climate. There are other vaccine options which are thermo-stable at 4°C such as AstraZeneca, Sinovac, Novavax, and Johnson & Johnson [4].

Billions of vaccine doses are needed fast to fulfil the demand of low-to-middle income countries, thus importing these vaccines is an easy option in the short term. However, it would be beneficial to establish their own vaccine manufacturing platform in the long term because COVID-19 vaccines will need to be re-administered after 1-2 years. This will simplify the distribution process and save a lot of costs.

This study focuses on Baculovirus and Insect Cell System (BICS) as a vaccine manufacturing platform, a method that is used by Novavax to produce its protein subunit vaccine [5]. Novavax vaccine is stable at 2°C up to 8°C [6], showing significantly better thermostability compared to vaccines from mRNA platform [7]. This characteristic can lower the cost for storage and distribution.

BICS vaccine manufacturing platform has been used to produce vaccines for other diseases such as MERS-CoV [8] and influenza [9], which means existing vaccine plants can be repurposed to manufacture COVID-19 vaccine due to the similar production steps. Before stepping right in, a techno-economic analysis needs to be performed by simulating the production process in SuperPro Designer software. A sensitivity analysis will help to identify the bottlenecks of the process, which then can be optimised to find the minimum production cost.

This BICS vaccine platform will be compared with mRNA vaccine platform since more efforts and studies are conducted to increase mRNA vaccine’s thermostability [10]. Would it be more cost-effective to produce a thermostable BICS vaccine or mRNA vaccine with added steps to increase its stability? The answer to this question will be beneficial for decision-makers to consider which vaccine manufacturing platform to invest in. This is an effort to make sure everyone in the world has reliable access to COVID-19 vaccines because after all, the battle against COVID-19 pandemic is a global fight.