Chemical Engineers and Pandemics

Chemical Engineering: the art and science of creating and operating industrial scale systems for transforming raw materials into useful products.

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When “chemical engineering” is mentioned, many people think of chemical plants, refineries, and such. That’s one part of it, but it also encompasses many other things, including pharmaceuticals and vaccine manufacture. These days, everyone is talking about and hoping for a vaccine for Covid-19. What does this mean for some chemical engineers and what they need to do?

First, scientists and clinicians need to actually discover the vaccine and show that it is both safe and effective. This is typically done in a series of trials with more and more people, the so-called Phase 1, 2, and 3 trials. Once it is clear that it actually is safe and effective, the next problem is how to produce hundreds of millions of doses in a way that ensures the vaccine continues to be safe and effective. That’s where the chemical engineers (and many others) get involved, because consistently producing large quantities of products with the desired properties and purity is what our training focuses on. Likely some of our chemical engineering colleagues and alumni are already doing preliminary design and development work on the manufacturing processes at places like Sanofi Pasteur in Toronto, and various others around the world.

Unfortunately, only a limited amount of design and development work can be done in advance, because the specifics of the production process depend very heavily on the type of vaccine. Will it be inactivated viruses, grown in human or other animal cell cultures? Maybe it will be a genetically-engineered virus of another sort, grown in some other types of cells? Or maybe it will be a protein that can be produced using a genetically-engineered bacteria? Another option apparently being pursued is the production of viral RNA encapsulated in lipid nanoparticles. Each of these could require different equipment, raw materials, purification sequences and packaging requirements. There are dozens of different vaccines in development around the world, so it’s hard to commit to much design and development work until it’s clearer which ones look likely to be successful in trials.

Once the vaccine is finalized and the design work is done, the next issue is facility construction since it is unlikely that there is currently enough vaccine manufacturing capacity in the world. It would probably be a bad idea to shut down all the other vaccine manufacturing and switch over to Covid-19 vaccines exclusively (even if this was technically possible). This would allow the eventual resurgence of polio, measles, diphtheria, tetanus, and various other serious illnesses that are currently somewhat suppressed around the world.

Facility construction requires identifying suitable space, ordering specialized equipment (which can have lead times of many months), assembling piping, wiring, containment and cleaning systems. Once constructed, the facility needs to be test-run a number of times to “validate” the process for regulatory approval. Also, standard operating procedures need to be developed and documented, and the personnel need training. All of these steps will often involve chemical engineers. Finally, once the process is up and running there may be chemical engineers involved in the day to day operations, monitoring, troubleshooting, and production planning.

Pharmaceutical manufacturing has some unique challenges in terms of product safety and regulatory issues, but the basic principles are the same ones that chemical engineers use in various other industries. And those are the principles we teach in academic programs and through workplace experiences.

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