The standards and constraints imposed on pharmaceutical production facilities are currently stronger than ever, as the race for vaccines against Covid-19 reaches full speed. For the major pharma players and the VINCI Energies business units supporting them, this exacting environment has become an exercise in responsiveness and agility.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the race for vaccines have increased the pressure on the pharmaceutical industry worldwide to an unprecedented level. Things are particularly intense in the production sector, an area where VINCI Energies business units are in the front line, with their real-world solutions helping vaccine manufacturers to start up their production lines in a reduced time frame. 

“The challenge is to build a distribution system that remains completely sterile, and all within a very short time frame”

Europe, in terms of vaccine production, means Belgium. The country is the central hub around which the continent’s life sciences industry turns. VINCI Energies has several business units there, supporting the main players in the market.

In November 2020, Actemium Leuven, Actemium Herentals and Hooyberghs HVAC won the order for a vaccine production line for coronaviruses (clean & black utilities networks, manufacturing and installation of cleaning and filtration units, integration of production equipment, etc.).

“With this project, the challenge is to build a distribution system where most of the loops have to remain completely sterile, with all the required qualifications, within a very short time frame – rather than the usual two-and-a-half years, we barely had a year,” explains Bart Groeninckx.

The Actemium Leuven Business Unit Manager also highlights the agility this project called for: “Given the reduced time we have available for the works, the engineering phase is continuously being challenged, sometimes to the very last minute. That requires constant proactive communication with the customer.”

Actemium had previously been part of an even larger project from 2016 to 2018: the overhaul of an entire vaccine installation near Brussels. “We built the whole factory with the help of nine VINCI Energies business units from Belgium and France,” says Jan Meeuwesen, Client Manager Life Sciences at Actemium Herentals. “This called for huge flexibility, especially given the very short timescales: by definition, the automation component always comes at the end of the chain.”

Being close to customers

In Normandy, Actemium is adding proximity to its assets of reciprocity and flexibility. “On the Sanofi site in Val-de-Reuil, having three of our business units: Nassandres (experts in specialist machinery), Grand Couronne (electrical systems and instrumentation) and Le Havre Process Control (industrial IT) working together enables us to manage and equip much of the complex, but we also remain highly responsive, with all three business units located less than an hour from the site,” explains Ghislain Brière, CEO of Actemium Le Havre Process Control.

Actemium provides technical assistance in EIA (electrical systems, instrumentation and automation) to the site. “Our assignments concern the installation and management of ‘tray turners’ (machines that turn the egg trays at the exit from vaccine lines to expel the shells and send them to waste processing), robotised production cells, vial transfer from the filling machine outlets to the freeze dryers, and egg conveyor systems from the Ovopharm plant to the Sanofi Pasteur site,” says Ghislain Brière.

But the Val-de-Reuil site is also a worldwide distribution centre, exporting vaccines made by Sanofi in France to 190 countries, with 900 million doses of vaccine shipped every year.

“Within the framework of this materials handling activity, we handle all the industrial IT maintenance. Our expertise with the digital command-and-control system is key, as the site is fully automated. We also recently completed the same assignment for the site extension project due for completion in 2023,” adds Ghislain Brière, who, for that project, was able to mobilise a technical support team whose members have between 15 and 30 years’ experience in this field.

More than 30 years’ experience

VINCI Energies’ expertise in the pharmaceutical market, and the vaccine market in particular, is the fruit of lengthy experience, just like that acquired by Actemium over the last 30-plus years working in partnership with the Sanofi group. Its long collaboration with the Sanofi Marcy-L’Etoile site near Lyon is a prime example. For the largest vaccine production site in Europe, which exports its product to 150 countries worldwide, Actemium business units have assembled a wide range of expertise.

“Our experts have a thorough understanding of the FDA standard that regulates manufacturing processes in the market, which is extremely stringent”

The starting point was in the area of production equipment. “We are established right across the vaccine production chain, but it’s primarily in the harvesting and purification stages that we apply our most sophisticated expertise, with special stainless-steel tanks made by our highly qualified boilermakers and pipefitters,” explains Jean-Pierre Nemoz, Director of Development at VINCI Energies France Industrie Centre Est Méditerranée.

Actemium also has considerable expertise in the field of equipment automation management, with its different business units built around teams of professionals with in-depth knowledge of pharmaceutical processes thanks to their dual grounding in chemistry and pharmacy.

“Our experts have a thorough understanding of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) standard that regulates manufacturing processes in the market, which is extremely stringent,” says the director of development. “One of our business units also operates a maintenance contract for the whole Marcy-L’Etoile site, from production to R&D.”

Last but not least, according to Jean-Pierre Nemoz, is Actemium’s ability to offer custom-made solutions. “It’s largely thanks to this agility that we we’ve been in talks with Sanofi to take part in their EVF (Evolutive Vaccine Facility) project in Neuville-sur-Saône, a new type of flexible unit housing several production modules that allow production of three or four vaccines simultaneously according to their seasonality.”