“We wanted to make the vaccine available as soon as possible”
Globally sought-after substance: biotechnologist Joel Varonier works for Lonza in the production of a vaccine against the coronavirus. It’s hard work, a heavy responsibility and a privilege all at the same time. Many people have thanked the Lonza staff.
He and his colleagues have been through a “very lively time”, says Joel Varonier. He’s sitting in his office in Visp, looking back over the last few months. “It was a huge challenge, but an honour to be involved.” The biotechnologist works as Senior Manager Operations mRNA at pharmaceuticals manufacturer Lonza, and is a key figure in the production of the active ingredient for a new mRNA coronavirus vaccine which Lonza is producing for US biotech company Moderna.
“At the beginning, there was a certain sense of awe. We knew that the whole world was waiting for this vaccine.”
“I was on holiday when I found out in mid-2020 that we would be taking on the production of the vaccine”, he says. His supervisor wrote to him: “Look forward! When you get back it will take all your energy and commitment.” Joel Varonier came back from his holiday raring to go to work. “Especially at the beginning, of course, there was a certain sense of awe. We knew that the whole world was waiting for this vaccine.” That awareness spurred the young biotechnologist on. It was now a matter of moving forward with production as rapidly as possible so that the vaccine could be rolled out to the general public.
“In the pharmaceuticals industry, of course, we’re always producing essential medicines. We know that we’re working for countless patients. But we rarely come into contact with them. This time it was completely different”, says Varonier. The coronavirus is affecting everyone in one way or another, and at this stage of the pandemic many felt completely helpless. “There was direct feedback; lots of people even thanked us. Of course, the pressure was high as well. But I found that motivating.”
There were regular visits from media representatives and health authorities from different countries. Joel Varonier and his team were in demand. “It was nice to be in the spotlight.” And it was hard work: under those circumstances, the 31-year-old says matter-of-factly, there had of course been no possibility of a normal working day. “We were working very hard for a long time. We wanted to do everything we could to make sure the vaccine would be available quickly.” “We” is several hundred people who even now are still working on production of the vaccine in Visp.
“Production had to be ramped up quickly, without compromising the quality of the drug.”
Production had to be ramped up quickly, but without taking any shortcuts. There was simply no room for that, says Varonier. “When it comes to quality and the standard of the drug, there can be no compromise.” So the rule in this case was to achieve the same thing, but “working flat out and with the utmost priority”. And as the timetable was the only thing that was different from other jobs, everyone involved knew straight away what they had to do.
For Varonier, that meant working on the technology transfer in the first few months. “We first had to take over the process from the customer and transfer it to our own facilities.” Then the implementation began, and Joel Varonier took on the role of production lead, together with his colleague Tillmann Schnierda. This means he reports directly to the ‘Head of Operations’. “I coordinate and manage the processes in my areas of responsibility and ensure that standards are adhered to. I’m in constant communication with my team members from around the world.”
As a manager, Varonier works in the office every day. He’s only rarely in the production hall now. “Sometimes I think that’s a shame. But it takes a lot of meetings and requires a lot of coordination input to lead a project like this. That’s also exciting. In the end, we’re all still biotechnologists and scientists.”
“Lonza was right next to the ice hockey rink, it fit the bill perfectly.”
Joel Varonier came to biotechnology by way of a little detour via sport. He grew up in Visp, and before he was seized by a passion for natural sciences, he loved the combination of ice, wood and vulcanised rubber. As an ice hockey player he attended the Sportgymnasium, the local sports academy high school. “But I already had chemistry and biology in the back of my mind”, says Varonier. When he eventually realised that the Sportgymnasium wasn’t the ideal choice for team athletes, he started an apprenticeship as a laboratory technician. “Lonza was right next to the ice hockey rink, it fit the bill perfectly.” So Varonier was able to combine sport and vocational training. His interest in biology continued to deepen; he established contacts within the company, and soon after completing his apprenticeship and the subsequent vocational diploma he decided to study biotechnology.
Joel Varonier completed his degree at ZHAW Zurich University of Applied Sciences in the School of Life Sciences and Facility Management in Wädenswil. One of the key factors in his decision was the location. “I wanted to head from the Valais to Zurich”, says Varonier. He graduated in 2017 with a Master of Science in Life Sciences – Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, and moved back to his hometown, to his old employer, Lonza. And he wasn’t alone. His partner, and now his wife, Linda Varonier, whom he met during his studies in Wädenswil, also took up a position at Lonza in Visp. Today they both work in the same area, on the same project, but in different roles. “That’s been useful especially in the past few months”, says Varonier, and laughs. “We were both working a huge amount, and were rarely home at the same time.” That has changed dramatically now, at least temporarily: since the summer, the two have been enjoying parenthood.
“Actually it’s only now that I’m noticing how closely the course content was tied in with eality.”
Joel Varonier also retained other friendships from his time as a student in Zurich. Another thing he has brought with him from his time at ZHAW is a big backpack full of practical and theoretical know-how that he applies in his work every day. “Actually it’s only now, years after I graduated, that I’m noticing how closely the course content was tied in with reality”, he says. “We had good case scenarios and work placements. The insights I gained are now part of my day-to-day business.” Varonier laughs, and adds: “Even with those courses that I couldn’t see the point of during my studies, it’s become clear in retrospect how important they are for my actual hands-on work.”
What he likes about his work today is the combination of subject matter and communication, along with the interdisciplinarity that he experiences in his coordinating role. “I especially like the contact with different people from all over the world”, he says. And: “Lonza offers a fantastic playground for biotechnologists and chemists, with every technology that’s available in the pharmaceutical industry. There’s a real spirit of optimism with great prospects for everyone.”