The town of Dessau in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt has made headlines during the pandemic. Notwithstanding its renown for Bauhaus architecture, the town has become a node in Europe’s race to produce Covid-19 vaccines.

IDT Biologika, a global contract manufacturer of vaccines and active ingredients based in Dessau, specialises in viral vaccines, gene therapies, immunotherapies and sterile liquids. During the pandemic, it partnered with two pharmaceutical giants, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, to fill millions of vials with their viral vector vaccines against Covid-19. As European countries have struggled to secure supplies and access to Covid-19 shots, amid increased global demand and vaccine nationalism, IDT Biologika is helping to position Saxony-Anhalt as a hub for vaccine production.

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“There was a great opportunity to use our strengths and make a contribution,” says Jürgen Betzing, the CEO of IDT Biologika. “We need reliable supply chains. It is important to strengthen and expand the European pharmaceutical locations at all levels, in terms of research, stable supply chains and manufacturing.” 

Biopharma legacy

Vaccines for everything from typhus to tuberculosis have been developed and produced in Dessau since 1921, when the town’s Bacteriological Institute was founded. Now, a century later, IDT Biologika — which emerged from this institute — is expanding to meet demand for Covid-19 vaccines.

At its location in Biopharmapark Dessau to the north of the town, IDT Biologika is investing €100m to build a second filling line and a new multifunctional vaccine-production building. It is also working in partnership with the German Center for Infection Research to develop its own Covid-19 vaccine.

“The Biopharmapark is a very attractive location not only for the production of vaccines, but for the entire industry,” says Mr Betzing, highlighting that the park has excellent infrastructure and is centrally located in Europe and Germany, less than 100 kilometres from Berlin. 

IDT Biologika’s new vaccine production building will comprise five production rooms with fermenters that have a capacity of up to 2000 litres. This will enable the biologics specialist to manufacture between two million and five million doses per week from early 2023. 

Supportive ecosystem

Given the complexity of IDT’s new pharmaceutical production site, Mr Betzing says TEW, the location service provider in Biopharmapark, has provided support to meet the tight project deadline.

“We have formed a reliable core team of 20 highly specialised employees from IDT and TEW, who will work with the planning partners to ensure completion of construction in time for production approval in early 2023,” he explains.

IDT Biologika currently employs 1600 people at Biopharmapark Dessau, which spans 136 hectares. Other companies based at the industrial park include France-based animal health specialist Ceva and German medical aesthetic firm Merz Pharma. 

Mr Betzing says that pharmaceutical companies “can find the best conditions in which to concentrate on their core competencies” and meet the global requirements of the industry. These include nearby scientific and research institutions, such as Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, and state initiatives to help companies find skilled workers, such as the Saxony-Anhalt Welcome Centre.

Since 2011, Biopharmapark Dessau has attracted €540m of investment, according to TEW figures. The park has an additional 25 hectares available for development.

BioNTech in Brehna

In Saxony-Anhalt, around 4800 people are employed in the pharmaceutical industry, with exports worth more than €1bn in 2019, according to figures from Invest and Marketing Corporation (IMG) Saxony-Anhalt, the state’s development agency.

Mibe, a subsidiary of German branded pharmaceuticals manufacturer Dermapharm, is based in the town of Brehna. Since October 2020, it has been producing Comirnaty, the messenger-RNA (mRNA) Covid-19 vaccine developed by BioNTech and Pfizer.

“We are very proud and highly motivated to be able to help fight the pandemic,” Hans-Georg Feldmeier, Dermapharm’s CEO, said in a statement. “This would have been unthinkable without the constructive cooperation with BioNTech, our suppliers, employees and the responsible authorities.”

In April 2021, Dermapharm expanded production of the Comirnaty vaccine to another subsidiary, Allergopharma, in Reinbek — a town in the state of Hamburg. 

Commenting on the Reinbek expansion, the German federal health minister Jens Spahn said that Germany is emerging as one of the world leaders in mRNA vaccines. “The co-operation between BioNTech and Allergopharma is further proof of this,” he notes.

Cold-chain specialists

Scaling production is difficult, but it is not the only challenge — another pertinent one lies in distribution, since the vaccine must be stored at an extremely low temperature to stay effective. 

Mecotec Group, a Bitterfeld-Wolfen-based company specialising in freezing technology, has addressed this by developing a container that can transport vaccines in temperatures as low as –80 degrees Celsius without using dry ice or refrigeration batteries. 

Enrico Klauer, the CEO of Mecotec, notes that while the fight against Covid-19 is “a truly global battle with no borders”, he has found a collaborative spirit between companies across the state.

“In our microcosm here in Saxony-Anhalt, there is a close co-operation among all partners,” he says. For instance, when Dermapharm’s subsidiary received its order to produce the BioNTech vaccines in Brehna, the pharmaceutical manufacturer contacted Mecotec.

“We started immediately to develop a deep-freeze cooling chamber that was successfully installed on-site, and started operation at the end of last year,” says Mr Klauer. 

Mecotec’s containers, which hold roughly half a million doses, have already been used in the Philippines. The company now is in talks with potential customers across the world. 

“We definitely see very high demand for our solutions,” says Mr Klauer, noting that Covid-19 vaccine booster shots in the coming years will likely mean that this continues. 

State support

Since deciding to settle in Bitterfeld-Wolfen in 2012, Mr Klauer says that the co-operation between sectors runs smoothly and the state is “forward-thinking” in creating an environment in which companies can grow. 

“The support from the local investment agency was more than just financial support, it was a real partnership from the very beginning,” he says, adding that existing infrastructure and the presence of biopharmaceutical were other deciding factors.

Even as the pandemic has presented difficulties to ailing companies, the state’s investment agency has stepped in to meet increased demand for financial assistance and business support.

“Our main aim has been to take an important pilot function for the companies and to provide targeted information about the support offered at the state and federal level and to network the companies with the relevant institutions,” says Thomas Einsfelder, the managing director of Invest and Marketing Corporation Saxony-Anhalt.

In association with the Investment and Marketing Corporation Saxony-Anhalt. Writing and editing were carried out independently by fDi Intelligence.

This article first appeared in the October/November print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.