What Do Your Grandmother's Corningware Dishes and the COVID-19 Vaccines Have in Common?

A New York company is beloved for their famous kitchenware — and now for their valiant efforts to get the coronavirus vaccine safely to waiting patients.

glass vials
Photo: Courtesy of Corning Valor Glass

Corning products have been a household name for more than 140 years, even if you don't always recognize them. In the late 1800s, the company's innovators created a glass encasement to house Thomas Edison's carbon filament to make lightbulbs, and later invented an economical way to mass produce them to be more affordable for household use.

In 1913, Corning physicist Dr. Jesse Littleton brought home a piece of heat-resistant glass developed in 1908 and asked his wife Bessie to bake a cake on it. The glass held up tremendously throughout the baking process, and in 1915 the Pyrex brand hit store shelves.

A few decades later, in the early 1950s, an oven malfunction while heating a piece of photosensitive glass during a lab experiment led to the development of an American kitchen icon: Corningware casserole dishes adorned with blue cornflowers.

During the mishap, Dr. S. Donald Stookey discovered that the glass maintained its shape, became milky white from crystallization, didn't break when dropped, and withstood extreme temperature changes. How many meals have gone from oven to freezer back to oven and onto the dining room table, all in a Corningware casserole dish since this mid-20th century discovery?

Beckys Corningware
The Washington Post / Contributor / Getty Images

In the decades since, and in addition to creating window glass for every manned American spacecraft and the International Space Station, Corning has worked behind the scenes on technology that's used in household items, likely without most us even realizing it. The glass used on your flatscreen TV, laptop, smartphone, and smartwatch or fitness tracker likely originated at Corning, which is located in a small town in western New York.

Following along those lines, Corning turned its innovative attention to high tech, focusing on things like lasers and fiber optics instead of cookware; the company sold the consumer housewares side of the business to World Kitchen in 1998.

The company's innovation continues, and will likely become a household name again as the rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine develops.

In 2011, Corning began developing pharmaceutical-grade glass packaging with an intent to answer manufacturing concerns some pharmaceutical makers had with traditional borosilicate vials. According to Corning, "friction on the outer surface can make the [borosilicate] vials bunch and cause back-ups — not unlike a traffic jam — in the machinery, leading to damage and breakage."

After experimenting with more than 200 different glass compositions, the Corning team discovered one that worked: an aluminosilicate glass the company named Valor Glass. The vials made with Valor Glass are "about 10 times stronger than conventional vials, and more chemically durable on the inside to avoid delamination. An external coating reduces friction, so the vials can slide past each other at high speeds with less chance of jamming together or breaking," according to Corning.

More than a year ago (in October 2019), a leading pharmaceutical manufacturer received FDA approval to use Valor Glass in primary packaging for a marketed drug product. That's good news as progress continues in the development and subsequent distribution of a novel coronavirus vaccine.

As a part of the White House's Operation Warp Speed Initiative, Corning received funding from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to expand manufacturing capacity of the Valor Glass vials.

Wendell P. Weeks, Corning's chairman and chief executive officer, said in a press release, "We're delighted that BARDA has selected Corning as a packaging provider for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. Our Valor Glass provides the strongest, fastest to fill, and highest-quality pharmaceutical glass vials ever produced. 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."

Just as Corning changed Americans' lives at home by inventing long-lasting, hard-working kitchenware in the early- and mid-20th century, it's poised to change lives again with the vehicle that will safely deliver the coronavirus vaccine to millions of people across the U.S.

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