Ending a once-in-a-century pandemic demands new healthcare and medical tools.
It was among the most urgent national priorities when it became evident that COVID-19 was spreading in March, and remains the call nearly a year later. But this also had local resonance in Maryland, a state that already had a cluster of top research universities, federal institutions and companies from publicly traded pharmaceutical giants to medical technology startups.
“When the pandemic hit, we had all these pieces in place,” said Marty Rosendale, CEO of the Maryland Tech Council. It was true in April and it still seems to be the case a full year later.
It was especially evident in development of the vaccine. The Bethesda-based National Institutes of Health had a key role in the Moderna vaccine that is already going into arms. Novavax, a Montgomery County company that was little known outside of biotech circles prior to this year, drew on its previous work with coronaviruses to put forward one of the top vaccine candidates. Its Gaithersburg neighbor Emergent Biosolutions, which was already a biotech manufacturing partner of the federal government, signed agreements to make vaccines at its Baltimore site with Novavax, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, once they are approved. And as these vaccines are tested for safety and effectiveness, the University of Maryland School of Medicine was a leading trial site. Meanwhile, Johns Hopkins was the public health source.
When it comes to treatments for those with the disease, Gaithersburg-based Cartesian Therapeutics developed a cell therapy that it said was the first to be RNA engineered, and entered clinical trials in September.
On testing, this was clear as Baltimore County signed an agreement with its own large employer BD IDS in June to expand testing capabilities. Qiagen, the Dutch company with a U.S. base in Montgomery County, provided reagent kits for the testing operation at the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Institute for Genome Sciences in Baltimore. By the end of the year, Qiagen was committing to expanding its presence in Germantown.
Germantown-based Zalgen Labs is applying its own expertise in diagnostics to create something new: The company is developing a rapid home test for COVID-19 that moved into the trial phase by the end of 2020.
But there were also quieter acts taking place in labs around the state. After being connected by the Maryland Tech Council, Zalgen Labs opened its space to another company that was also working on testing in March.
Collaboration is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but Zalgen CEO Dr. Luis Branco sees it become a reality. In the typically competitive industry, there’s talk of working together out front, but things tend to fizzle once the need to be first takes hold. But in the last year, there’s been a “seismic shift” in how companies work together, he said.
“Individually and collectively, people have made it happen and have brought the elements together to move forward towards a solution,” Branco said. “It has been really refreshing.”
Rosendale saw this from the first days of the virus. In January 2020, the healthcare industry gathered in San Francisco at the JP Morgan Chase Healthcare Conference. The coronavirus was still just becoming understood. And during the conference, the genomic sequencing of the virus became available. From cocktail receptions to the plane ride home, meetings were starting that would push the advances forward.
Yes, working together has come out of necessity. As Rosendale pointed out, there was intense pressure from medicine to respond to the pandemic, and that required sharing resources. Companies needed access to specific knowledge and technologies for COVID-19 that they might not have had in-house. Yet the tech council leader sees this energy as being “sticky” going forward.
“There are relationships being built throughout this process that aren’t going to go away,” he said. Ditto for the scientific breakthroughs and regulatory hurdles that have been cleared along the way.
A year later, this pandemic remains, and there’s plenty of work left to beat it. But spare a moment for reflection, and there’s already opportunity for learning going forward. How can we apply what was learned now to combat the next pathogens that might cause pandemics going forward? In considering how companies that already had experience with the needed tools and vaccine platforms developed were best positioned to act, Rosendale sees possibility for advancing the idea of “warm ready preparedness.”
It also begs the question: What might this groundswell of work mean for the state’s economy?
Life sciences was already tabbed as one of Maryland’s growing industries, attracting attention from economic developers.
It’s a sector where bench strength isn’t just found in the lab. For every Emergent that became a well-known biotech manufacturing name for the COVID-19 vaccine, the state is also home to firms like Kite Pharma moving in to build centers for making other kinds of drugs. For every NIH, there’s a Fort Detrick that has long been home to discoveries from the military angle.
From a business perspective, the life science sector has brought liquidity events. Among the most recent wins, gene therapy manufacturing firm Paragon BioServices exited for $1.2 billion to Catalent in 2019. Beyond the numbers, such events also reveal a flywheel that’s spinning, as the companies that establish a presence in the state produce others that bring their own success. Look no further than this week’s announced $3 billion acquisition of Gaithersburg-based Viela Bio by Horizon Therapeutics. That massive exit traces roots back to MedImmune, the Montgomery County biotech that was acquired by pharma giant AstraZeneca in 2007. AstraZeneca, in turn, built a regional presence and spun out Viela Bio.
The kinds of companies that grow workforces also bring development. A recently released report to close 2020 from commercial real estate firm Newmark ranked Maryland as seventh in the nation when it comes to life sciences clusters. Along with the institutional might, the report cites demand that’s leading to big development plans in the I-270 corridor and a new crop of startups out of Johns Hopkins Tech Ventures and the University of Maryland BioPark that are growing a downtown base.
Top-10 is no slight, but there will be a push for more. Officials touting the “BioHealth Capital Region” have long talked about getting the state to the top of such lists, and are likely to find more wind in those sails now. Don’t mistake — there will be challenges to get there. That’s on view in the Newmark report: While entrepreneurial activity at the universities has created a “pipeline” of new companies, the report cites the perennial note of caution that the city lacks the available wet lab space to ensure that all of these firms have the space to grow.
To be sure, there are new developments in the works to address this, bringing the resources one new building at a time. But it’s also worth remembering that these are the kinds of growth challenges that are often solved with collaboration. It’s the same kind of spirit that ignited, and ultimately helped, in a pandemic. Bottle it up.