UPDATE 1-Lonza plant in Switzerland starts making ingredients for Moderna COVID shot

(Adds details, comment from Swiss health minister)

ZURICH, Jan 11 (Reuters) - Contract drugmaker Lonza said on Monday it has begun manufacturing ingredients for Moderna Inc’s COVID-19 vaccine from the first of three new Swiss production lines and expects the initial batch to be ready by month’s end.

Last May, Lonza won a contract to manufacture active ingredients for Moderna’s mRNA vaccine, which now has approval in the United States, the European Union and in Britain, among other nations.

Moderna plans to produce at least 600 million doses in 2021, with Lonza responsible for ingredients sufficient for two-thirds of that amount at combined U.S. and Swiss facilities. Large-scale U.S. manufacturing in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, began last year, with production from the new lines in Visp, Switzerland, starting now.

“Lonza has installed three production lines in Visp, Switzerland and we have started manufacturing the drug substance for the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine from the first line,” the company said in a statement.

“The two remaining lines will come on-line sequentially during Q1 2021 as planned,” Lonza added. “We expect the first batch by the end of January 2021.”

The ingredients, once ready, will be deep-frozen and sent to Laboratorios Farmaceuticos ROVI, 1,600 kms (994 miles) away in Madrid, Spain, for “fill and finish”, to be put in vials and loaded on pallets for eventual distribution to Europe as well as other countries, including Canada.

Separately, Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset said on Monday he expects that nation’s drugs regulator swissmedic to approve Moderna’s vaccine “very soon”, potentially boosting Switzerland’s vaccine supply to 1.5 million doses by February.

“The signals are good, I have the impression that it could come very soon,” Berset said, while visiting Lonza’s Visp site, suggesting the regulatory decision would come within days, not weeks. (Reporting by John Miller; Editing by Emma Farge and Toby Chopra)