Maryland plays an outsized role in worldwide hunt for a coronavirus vaccine

Washington Post

“The covid pandemic is shining a spotlight on a capability we’ve had for years,” Executive Vice President Sean Kirk said. “We have infrastructure here in Maryland that basically supports the entire [vaccine] product development continuum.”

Emergent’s readiness illustrates the outsize role that Maryland is playing in the battle against the novel coronavirus. In Montgomery County’s biotech corridor along Interstate 270, multiple companies have pivoted to work on possible vaccines and cures, and to expand testing. At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, 260 scientists are working on 25 projects for covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The nation’s best-known expert on the disease, Anthony S. Fauci, works at the Bethesda-based National Institutes of Health.

“This is the place to be,” said Luis Branco, managing director of Germantown’s Zalgen Labs, which is working to develop an improved diagnostic test for the coronavirus. “There are very few places in the world that can really gather all these resources in a small geographical area. Maryland is definitely one of them.”

There is plenty of competition. Boston, San Francisco, Seattle and North Carolina’s “Research Triangle” all have robust biotechnology sectors, along with many cities abroad. According to the World Health Organization, more than 100 possible vaccines are already being studied, and it will take months, at least, before one is found to be safe, effective and able to be produced in large numbers.

That said, Maryland may have an advantage because it has so much experience in gene and cell therapies, and in vaccines, all of which will be critical in fighting the coronavirus, according to Martin Rosendale, chief executive of the Maryland Tech Council.

A private company in Montgomery County and NIH played key roles in mapping the human genome. Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline has a large vaccine research unit in Rockville, and other local companies such as Novavax and Altimmune produce vaccines.

Maryland has a strong presence in the health sciences largely because it is home to federal institutions such as NIH, the Food and Drug Administration and the Army’s biological defense center at Fort Detrick.

In addition, Johns Hopkins is the nation’s largest research university, as measured by spending. The University of Maryland at Baltimore did one of the first Ebola vaccine tests on human subjects and is now conducting federally sponsored clinical trials related to covid-19.

The federal and academic research centers have attracted private companies to the region, as well as being a source of scientists and doctors who move to the private sector in hope of making money.

For area biotech companies, the fight against covid-19 offers opportunity both to help humanity and reap financial rewards. Many are start-ups yet to earn a profit, and new covid-19 business could change that.

“This might be enough to push them over that [profitability] threshold,” Rosendale said. “I don’t think anyone is going to get extraordinarily wealthy, but they will get paid for their vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics.”

The tech council has formed a Maryland Covid-19 Coalition with 40 companies, including some in Virginia, to share information about where to locate supplies, find lab space and encourage cooperation. Here are examples of what they’re doing:

●Novavax of Gaithersburg began working on a covid-19 vaccine on Jan. 11, and it said its candidate has had positive results in trials on mice. After tests on monkeys, it hopes to have initial findings on human tests by the end of May.

“We have a high level of optimism, confidence, that the vaccine will work in humans,” Chief Executive Stanley Erck said.

“The truth is, this is an unprecedented market for vaccines,” Erck said. “We, the industry, are trying to get 6 [billion] to 8 billion doses made in the next couple of years.”

Nearly all of Novavax’s 200 employees are working on the coronavirus effort.

●Emergent BioSolutions would manufacture Novavax’s vaccine candidate in large quantities at a facility near Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Emergent signed a partnership in 2012 with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to build the plant to deal with a possible future pandemic.

Emergent also has a $135 million partnership agreement with a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, and with a third company, to manufacture their vaccine candidates.

“It’s to be expected in pandemic response that the government and society would want multiple shots on goal, multiple horses in the race,” Kirk said.

●Vigene of Rockville is also preparing to manufacture vaccine candidates.

“We are in active discussions with half a dozen companies,” said Jeffrey Hung, chief commercial officer. “Every project is pretty urgent, because everybody wants to develop something for the public good and the competitive edge.”

Vigene previously produced vaccine candidates for human papillomavirus and HIV.

●GeneDx of Gaithersburg reconfigured part of its laboratory to do up to 5,000 tests a day for the coronavirus. It is a subsidiary of BioReference Laboratories, which has 4,000 employees and now has about 70 percent of them working on covid-19.

●U.S. Pharmacopeia of Rockville is a 200-year-old nonprofit that ensures that drugs and other products approved by the FDA conform to quality standards. It has issued guidance on how to produce hand sanitizers and how to protect pharmacy staff if safety equipment is in short supply.

“We have pivoted so more than 50 percent of what we are doing is covid-related,” Chief Science Officer Jaap Venema said.

●●In Virginia, Aperiomics of Sterling is running tests to identify coronavirus in swab samples. It’s also working with a Maryland company to develop a rapid antibody test.

●In Charlottesville, Caretaker Medical has enjoyed a boom in demand for its wrist-worn devices that measure vital signs. It provides continuous blood-pressure readings, which help doctors and nurses monitor patients without having to enter their rooms.

“Our normal run rate was dozens of caretakers per month to now hundreds per month,” President Jeff Pompeo said. Each sells for between $2,000 and $4,000.

“We’re in the right place at the right time,” he said.

Biotech executives said they were setting aside some of their normal competitive habits in the interest of moving quickly to fight the coronavirus. Zalgen’s Branco said that even though his company is working on an improved diagnostic test, it agreed to make available some of its lab space to an independent researcher working on a similar product when asked by the tech council.

“We opened up our resources and lent a hand,” Branco said. “Everybody will gain.”

At the same time, he acknowledged that he hoped his test would be profitable.

“I don’t want to sound totally altruistic,” Branco said. “If we commercialize it and it sells, then yes, there will be a good economic windfall.”

But he added, “Our focus going into it was using our core competency to do good, which we knew we could.”

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