Speed and large-scale manufacturing capabilities are two components companies are aiming for as they seek to crank out a COVID-19 vaccine.

Woodlands-based VGXI, a manufacturer of plasmid DNA that is currently working on a COVID-19 vaccine, broke ground Nov. 10 at the Deison Technology Park in Conroe. The planned 240,000-square-foot facility will increase the company’s capacity to manufacture “vaccine solutions,” according to VGXI.

But for Inovio Pharmaceuticals, the company that contracted with VGXI to produce a COVID-19 vaccine, the expansion may be coming too late, as the former sought to roll out 1 million doses of a vaccine by the end of the year.

Demand for more doses

In January, VGXI announced it would begin producing a vaccine for the coronavirus. At that time, COVID-19 had spread to about 30 countries, and had not yet been found in Texas.

The company was selected by Inovio to produce the vaccine under a $9 million grant, according to VGXI. The two companies embarked on a speedy, “large-scale manufacturing campaign,” a process that has been generally accelerated under the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed initiative.

Inovio sought to have 1 million doses of a vaccine manufactured by the end of 2020 and 50-100 million doses by the end of 2021, according to court documents filed in Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas in Pennsylvania. But VGXI allegedly lacked the manufacturing capabilities to produce this quantity in that time frame, according to the court documents filed by Inovio.

Inovio then contracted with two other manufacturers and requested a technology transfer from VGXI. In June, Inovio sued VGXI, claiming that the latter was breaching its contractual obligation by not providing a technology transfer.

VGXI did not provide comment on the litigation, but a news release stated “VGXI was surprised by Inovio’s court filings” and “the allegations in the complaint are inaccurate.”

A Montgomery County, PA judge ultimately sided with VGXI. On June 26, VGXI stated it was “pleased” with the ruling regarding the technology transfer. Inovio did not immediately respond to requests for comment on if the new facility would help support its goal in manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines.

Expansion of facility

VGXI had been looking to expand its manufacturing capabilities even before the coronavirus pandemic. Five years ago, the company began looking for a place to move its headquarters, COO Dorothy Peterson said at the groundbreaking Nov. 10. One of the first places they looked at was Deison Technology Park in Conroe, she said.

“We looked at other things, but we kept coming back here,” Peterson said. “The city was so welcoming.”

“We hope to bring hundreds and hundreds of new jobs and employment to [the] city of Conroe." —VGXI CEO Young Park

In July, the company announced it had acquired land at Deison—21 acres of initial acquisition, with an option to purchase an additional 21 acres for future expansion—and would become the technology park’s first tenant.

Phase 1 of the facility is expected to wrap up end of next year, with production beginning in early 2022, officials said. The first phase will ramp up VGXI’s production of DNA plasmids, and the second phase will include more production of DNA plasmids as well as of mRNA.

“We are in a really short capacity,” CEO Young Park said. “We’d really like to increase that.”

Park added that the new facility will bring additional jobs.

“We hope to bring hundreds and hundreds of new jobs and employment to [the] city of Conroe," he said.

Several elected officials attended the groundbreaking, including Congressman Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands; Conroe Mayor Pro Tem Duke Coon and representatives from the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea in Houston and the Houston Korean American Chamber of Commerce.

“Equally important to developing a vaccine is producing a vaccine, and that’s why we’re here—to make sure we can produce quickly and effectively for all Americans,” Brady said during his remarks. “That’s where companies like VGXI come in, because without expanding critical manufacturing infrastructure, we can’t enable the production.”

He added he was proud to support VGXI’s efforts to expand its manufacturing capacity.

“Your new facility could not come at a better or more necessary time,” Brady said.