Community, Healthcare, Latest News

WVU alum talks vaccine development

There are Mountaineers all over the world.

Including James Shirey, who has worked for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer since 1991. In October 2019 he was named vice-president, global sterile injectables quality. He leads 3,200 people at 12 locations around the world.

Wednesday evening, he shared his experience in the industry and spoke about Pfizer’s role in the development of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 mRNA vaccine at the West Virginia University Alumni Association’s webinar series “Mountaineers Making A Difference.”

Shirey wanted to be a dentist when he came to WVU and earned his undergraduate degree in biology, but after his second year of dental school realized it wasn’t for him. He then earned a master’s degree in environmental microbiology and two years later joined Pfizer.

He entered his current role just a few months before COVID-19 took over the world. Shirey said the company noticed the virus pretty early on in 2020 because of its international scale, and the first priority was making sure supplies of critical drugs and other hospital products made by Pfizer kept up with demand.

One such product was Propofol, which Dr. Lisa Costello, the host of the webinar, explained is used to put people to sleep or sedate them in the ICU.

Shirey said working on the vaccine is the most important and impactful thing he’s ever done.

The rapid development of the vaccine came from a number of factors, including a proactive head start by Pfizer — which reached out to BioNTech very early — and the use of mRNA to make the vaccine rather than the traditional method using eggs and cultures.

Shirey said the mRNA vaccine can be synthesized rather than grown, which makes for a much quicker production time. Initial production of the vaccine took 110 days. A normal flu vaccine takes 9-10 months to produce. The COVID-19 vaccine is now being manufactured in 60 days. Half of that time is spent performing tests on it.

The use of mRNA to make vaccines will likely be a marked moment in medical history.

Costello is on loan serving in Charleston, and as she works with patients on the frontlines she was vaccinated with the Pfizer-BioNTech version early after its release. She thanked Shirey for his and Pfizer’s efforts.

In addition to the creation of the vaccine itself, Pfizer also had to develop the storage boxes to transport the vaccine, which needs to be stored at -60 degrees. Recently, approval to store it at -20 degreers was given. Improving the vaccine, from increasing the number of doses per bottle to quicker manufacturing to making it easier to transport and store, are constant efforts, Shirey said.

The company’s goal is to manufacture 2 billion doses in 2021.

Tweet @DominionPostWV