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Covid jab factory gets £400m expansion boost

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Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies plant Billingham Teesside Novavax vaccine - Scott Heppell /PA
Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies plant Billingham Teesside Novavax vaccine - Scott Heppell /PA

A North East factory that has been making coronavirus vaccines is set for a £400m expansion.

The Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies plant in Billingham, Teesside, has been producing jabs for US-based Novavax and employs some 890 staff.

Its workforce will now rise to more than 1,200 under plans set out by its Japanese owner, creating one of the UK’s biggest pharmaceutical hubs.

The move is a boost to Boris Johnson’s levelling-up agenda, bringing investment to one of the country’s most deprived areas, with the Prime Minister hailing the “significant” expansion on Wednesday.

“I am delighted that Fujifilm has identified the massive potential in the UK for growth and innovation,” he said.

“At £400m, this is a significant investment in British biopharmaceutical manufacturing and will power our response to some of today’s most urgent global health challenges and deliver life-changing medicines and vaccines to patients in need.”

The Billingham site’s expansion is expected to create about 350 new jobs, Fujifilm said, with two facilities established.

One will focus on making cell cultures, which are needed for new drugs that use antibodies, while the other will be used to make viral gene therapies, drugs that use modified viruses to treat illnesses.

The upgrade represents a significant expansion of the site’s existing capabilities, Fujifilm said.

For example, it will triple the amount of cell cultures that Billingham can produce.

It will also add the ability to produce messenger RNA, the key molecule that was behind Pfizer and Moderna’s breakthrough Covid vaccines.

Martin Meeson, chief executive of Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, said: “There has never been a more important time to invest in biopharmaceuticals and £400m, the largest investment in British biopharmaceutical manufacturing for decades, signals our intent … to help solve public health demands, and deliver the medicines and vaccines of tomorrow.

“With a strong growing demand for microbial, cell culture and viral gene therapy services, we are adding the capacity and latest technologies within one campus.”

The company expects to complete the expansion by late 2023 or early 2024.

It first signed a deal to produce jabs for Novavax in August 2020 when the UK Government placed an order for 60m doses. Its vaccine is not yet approved for use in Britain.

Novavax submitted data to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency last month and is now awaiting a decision.

Glaxosmithkline is also involved in production, with its Barnard Castle site used to prepare vials of the vaccine and for packing them.

There were previously concerns that delays to the approval of the Novavax jab could put jobs in Fujifilm’s Billingham plant at risk but the company’s announcements will calm those fears.