Anyone who’s seen a newscast since the end of 2020 has come across reports about Covid-19 vaccine production. It is almost always accompanied by stock footage showing row upon row of vials, outfitted with color-coded caps, shuffling along a conveyor. They are followed by robotic arms that grasp the vials and package them for shipment. Human operators are rarely shown. To the untrained eye, the vaccine is the product of a hypermodern plant that virtually runs itself.
Of course, it is true that big pharma uses modern production methods, particularly when those processes are contrasted against the iconic image of the old-school pharmacist, compounding medicines with mortar and pestle. But the sorts of activities which, until recently, have been emblematic of modern manufacturing methods — such as the use of computer-controlled production equipment — no longer define the leading edge of industrial production.