As the COVID-19 vaccine begins its rollout to all Minnesotans age 16 and older Tuesday, most people will be thinking about the shot in their arm or their plans after vaccination. What people may not be thinking about is the vial the vaccine comes in — a crucial part of the global vaccination process, which a Duluth native has helped develop.
Joe Mattson, a 2009 Duluth Central High School and 2013 University of Minnesota Duluth graduate, has been working for Corning in New York as a chemical process engineer for about a year and a half.
Mattson has worked on the early stages of several projects for Corning related to COVID-19, including a polymer coating on vaccine vials that allows for faster processing by pharmaceutical companies.
“The faster you can fill, the faster you can distribute,” Mattson said.
The vials are made of Valor glass, a damage-resistant material stronger than ordinary glass that is less susceptible to cracking, breaking or generating particles of glass dust.
“Before I was even ready to enter the workforce, there were people working on this stuff, so there’s a lot of groundwork that was laid before I got there,” Mattson said.
Mattson is part of a team of Corning employees that learns how the physics of various inventions work on a small scale, and then tests different processes to find out what works on a larger scale and what doesn’t.
“I’m trying to figure out what the process variables are that we can tune, like speed or temperature or concentration of a particular chemical,” he said. “Those are the types of levers we get to pull.”
The vials are in high demand by pharmaceutical companies producing COVID-19 vaccines. Pfizer signed a long-term purchase agreement with Corning in late May 2020 to use the Valor glass vials in its vaccine production, months before it was authorized for use by the Food and Drug Administration.
“With Valor glass, I think it’s great to see that innovation in packaging is starting to catch up with innovation in drug development,” said Anthony Maddaluna, former executive vice president and president of Pfizer Global Supply.
On Friday, March 26, Corning announced it will receive $57 million from the U.S. departments of Health and Human Services and Defense to increase domestic manufacturing of the vials. This amount is in addition to the $204 million contract reached in June 2020. Corning now expects to produce 150 million vials this year, according to the Wall Street Journal, which is 50% more than initial annual targets — and enough to hold 1.2 billion doses of vaccine.
“There was a big push this year, so it was pretty fun,” Mattson said. “It was pretty fast-paced.”
Mattson has also helped with the production of Guardiant, an antimicrobial paint that kills 99.9% of germs on surfaces it coats, including the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.
“I wasn’t part of the team that invented the technology, but I was part of a team that was helping bring it to market and making sure we understood some of the fundamental physics and chemistry behind it,” Mattson said.
Mattson was first approached by his now-bosses at Corning during a talk for his research symposium during graduate school at Cornell, where he earned his doctorate in 2019. After a tour of the facility and a “first date”-like meeting, he was sold and has loved working for the company ever since. He enjoys the variety of serving each of Corning’s departments: automotive, life science, optics, environmental and pharmaceuticals.
“There are different ways to look at things, to see where energy is coming from and where it’s headed," Mattson said. "Some of my training at Cornell was focused on which physics transferred best with an increase in scale, and that’s part of what we did at Corning with this project.”
Before Mattson moved to Painted Post, New York, where he now lives with his wife, Megan, he was a recipient of the Alworth Scholarship, which is awarded to high school seniors in northern Minnesota pursuing bachelor’s degrees in fields in science or mathematics.
Patty Salo Downs, executive director of Duluth’s Marshall H. and Nellie Alworth Memorial Fund, said the organization made a wise investment when awarding a four-year scholarship to Mattson.
“It’s no surprise that Joe went from being an excellent student in chemistry and calculus to someone who is now helping address the biggest challenge facing the world today,” Salo Downs said. “Joe is the kind of difference-maker whose education we’re always pleased to support.”
Mattson drew a parallel between one of Corning’s early ventures to today’s vaccine vials. In 1879, Thomas Edison approached Corning looking for a glass case for his invention, and a year later, Corning was the sole producer of Edison’s light bulbs. While the light aspect is what most people associate with light bulbs, the glass is an "unsung hero." The same could be said for the vials filled with vaccines that are now being distributed around the country and world.
“People have been making glass containers for thousands of years, so simply having a glass container is not a novelty. It’s kind of cool how Corning is able to innovate that,” Mattson said.