The lightbulb. Pyrex®. Optical fiber. The catalytic converter. Gorilla® Glass. Valor® Glass. You’ve likely heard of most of these revolutionary innovations in glass, all of which came out of Corning, NY. And although the last one may be unfamiliar to you now, it’s about to serve a very significant purpose: housing and transporting the life-saving vaccine for COVID-19.
Corning Incorporated has been on the cutting edge of glass innovation for nearly 170 years, providing solutions to problems and shaping the way we live our daily lives. It’s a company many across the world have never heard of, however, nearly everyone has interacted with technology developed here in this small town of 11,000 people.
Although you likely don’t realize it, Corning’s technologies have played a role in how we’ve adapted to the COVID-era from the beginning. Never before has there been such an intense need to remain connected while we’re apart. And how have we done that? By interacting with each other through glass displays and transmitting all communications with co-workers, loved ones, and others, via optical fiber. We are literally connected by glass, and so it’s somehow unsurprising—yet immensely remarkable—that Corning’s technology is also on the frontlines of the fight against the virus itself.
“Corning’s development of a glass vial that is the exact right product for the challenging distribution of these stunningly important vaccines fills me with hope and pride, both as a retired longtime Corning employee and as a local resident,” said Alan Eusden, chief operating officer of The Corning Museum of Glass. “It is also such a great endorsement of Corning’s approach to innovation. Corning’s history is rich with breakthroughs, all of which have made the world a better place. The impact of glass and Corning’s glass technology on all of us is astonishing, and the possibility of these vials helping to bring an end to the pandemic brings such great hope.”
Recognizing a Need Before it Arises
As was the case with both display glass and fiber optics, Valor Glass was in the works for years before COVID-19 became a reality. Nearly a decade ago, while chairman and CEO Wendell Weeks was serving on the board of drugmaker Merck & Co., he became aware that the pharmaceutical industry faced particular challenges in the production of vaccine vials: manufacturing speed and integrity of material. Because of the fragile nature of glass, machines creating vials could only run so fast. Vials would bump into each other, causing a risk of chipping or breaking on the outside of the container. The inside of the container faced the potential of microscopic flaking of the glass. Weeks took the problem back to scientists at Corning—they needed to develop a glass that would be less prone to damage on the outside, and also stronger on the inside—and they set to work to solve it.
“Throughout Corning’s history, breakthrough innovations have involved a new business need, a glass formulation or chemistry invention, and a new glass manufacturing process,” said Rob Cassetti, a former senior director at the Museum. “In this case, Corning has deep expertise in high-speed production of glass dating all the way back to the ribbon machine used to make lightbulbs. They have deep expertise in glass strengthening dating back to the 1960s. And they have tremendous strength in developing new glass formulas to solve a particular problem.”
Key components that make Valor Glass a “revolutionary primary pharmaceutical glass package” include:
- A low-friction exterior coating, which enables the mass production of these vials.
- A special chemical mixture, sans boron, which prevents breaking and damage during shipping.
- Reduction of glass particle generation, meaning the glass does not interact with the vaccine at all, so there’s no risk of shards mixing with the injection.
- Able to withstand freeze-thaw conditions, which is especially important for the early COVID-19 vaccines. The vial can get cold or hot and it does not affect the integrity of the glass.
“Our Valor Glass provides the strongest, fastest to fill, and highest-quality pharmaceutical glass vials ever produced,” said Weeks. “It helps protect patients and addresses existing bottlenecks. Corning is ready to do our part in the fight against the pandemic, as well as to help prepare for future public health emergencies.”
Valor Glass had been approved by the FDA before the need for the COVID-19 vaccine was known, allowing Corning Incorporated to pivot quickly to manufacture and utilize the vials to meet the demand. In June, Corning received $204M in funding from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, part of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, to substantially expand domestic manufacturing capacity under the White House’s Operation Warp Speed Initiative. Valor Glass would house the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Corning bet long that this glass would allow for faster manufacture and packaging of vaccines, and that it would be of interest in the pharmaceutical space,” said Cassetti. “This is where speed-to-market is absolutely essential to save lives, and this particular innovation allows pharmaceutical manufacturers to produce more vaccines that can be shipped. The glass allows this to happen. That, at this moment in time, is an incredible contribution.”
“It took years to develop Valor Glass from top to bottom, from the composition of the glass to the methods of its production line and manufacture,” said Karol Wight, president and executive director of The Corning Museum of Glass. “Every step of the way took time and energy resources and both financial and intellectual investment. To me, those are the hallmarks of Corning Incorporated: the willingness to invest in research, and the people who undertake the research to come up with ideas and products that benefit mankind.”
Hometown Pride: A Legacy Worth Celebrating
Cassetti remembers a Corning marketing slogan from the 1940s with renewed poignancy today: “Corning means research in glass.”
“Over the years, Corning has explored other business opportunities, but in the end, they always come back to their deep expertise in glass,” Cassetti said. “It’s the heartbeat of the company. It’s the heartbeat of our city. It’s the heartbeat of The Corning Museum of Glass. It’s the unbridled passion for the power and potential of this material.
“Corning is profoundly committed to quality,” he continued. “Anything that they do is done well and executed at the highest level. That’s in the DNA of this company that’s been around for nearly 170 years. So, you take this passion for the material, and the dedication to doing it right; then you combine it with the worldwide need at this moment for this material. How could you not be proud of that?”
“The fact that all of this takes place in our hometown continues to be a wonderful reality that all of us who live here enjoy,” said Wight. “Being a partner with a company like Corning Incorporated gives me great pride both as a citizen of Corning and as the leader of the museum that they created in 1951 to say thank you to the people of America for the success of their company. The Valor Glass vials are the latest example of a product created by this amazing company that will have a lasting impact on future generations.”