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UPDATE 3-Lonza sees months before Swiss COVID-19 vaccine plants hit 'cruising speed'

* Swiss plants for Moderna vaccine to start ‘soon’

* Speciality Ingredients unit sale slated for Q1

* 2020 FY sales, profit rise (Recasts to focus on Visp COVID-19 vaccine production lines)

ZURICH, Jan 27 (Reuters) - Lonza aims to start two new Swiss manufacturing lines for Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine soon to help boost supplies, but warned it would take a couple of months before production hits “cruising speed”.

CEO Pierre-Alain Ruffieux’s comments, after Lonza reported 2020 profit rose more than third, underscore COVID-19 vaccine supplies will continue to be constrained for now, as firms like Pfizer and AstraZeneca wrestle with production challenges.

Contract drug manufacturer Lonza has built capacity to produce enough ingredients for 400 million doses of Moderna’s vaccine a year, from one U.S. production line started last year and three lines in Visp, Switzerland, just now getting underway.

“We have just started production in Visp of the first line, and we will start soon the next two lines,” Ruffieux told reporters on Wednesday. “We expect that within a couple of months (of the launch), we will reach cruising speed.”

Lonza also said it expected to announce a buyer for its speciality ingredients chemicals unit soon, a deal that could fetch more than 3 billion Swiss francs ($3.4 billion).

Its 2020 profit rose 35% to 871 million francs. Sales climbed 3.2% to 6.19 billion francs, helped by demand from drugmakers including Moderna.

Ruffieux, a former Roche executive who became CEO last year, did not give a firm timeline for Lonza’s Swiss facilities to reach full capacity or outline targets for deliveries to Moderna.

DELAY WORRIES

Moderna has committed to supplying at least 600 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine in 2021 worldwide, made from ingredients from Lonza and other suppliers.

Still, governments are leery of delays as approved vaccines from Moderna, Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech and AstraZeneca rely on newer mRNA or viral vector technology where ramping up commercial production has not been seamless.

AstraZeneca is cutting first-quarter deliveries to the EU, citing production issues.

Pfizer has delayed some European deliveries, while Johnson & Johnson has also warned it may not meet some targets.

Lonza’s Ruffieux said making vaccines ingredients, like other medicines, was fraught with challenges, including logistical hurdles to obtain hundreds of components needed for each batch.

“As we perform more and more batches, people know what they have to do, there are less mistakes,” he said.

$1 = 0.8881 Swiss francs Reporting by John Miller. Editing by Jason Neely and Mark Potter

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