A US government agency has approved the industrial biotech firm Ginkgo Bioworks for a loan of up to $1.1 billion to optimize production of COVID-19 vaccines and tests. Ginkgo will use the money to expand infrastructure, including lab-scale bioreactors and automation equipment, aimed at responding to the pandemic.
In March, Ginkgo opened its Boston-area discovery and production services to firms working on COVID-19 diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines. In April, it linked up with Moderna to optimize production of raw materials for the biotech company’s mRNA vaccine candidate.
While Ginkgo is best known for developing ways to make specialty chemicals with engineered microbes, the firm has spent 2 years building mammalian cell capabilities as well, says Patrick Boyle, Ginkgo’s head of codebase. For example, it has a large fleet of devices to accelerate screening for mammalian protein expression. With the loan, from the International Development Finance Corporation, Ginkgo can expand its ability to optimize cell strains and boost yields of mRNA, DNA, and antibodies.
Boyle says the scale of pandemic-related testing and vaccine production is many times larger than traditional clinical labs and drug manufacturers normally tackle. Producing enough tests to roll out rapid antibody testing in a population—called pool testing—requires better antibodies than current tests use. And Ginkgo’s know-how in readying biological systems for large-scale manufacturing will help firms quickly produce mRNA and other nucleic acid vaccines, he says.
Before the pandemic, Ginkgo had built four research and optimization facilities, backed by over $700 million from investors. But scaling up for a pandemic involves many unknowns, making it difficult to attract private funding, Boyle tells C&EN. After the pandemic, Ginkgo can use the new facilities for regular business operations—or for any future pandemic.