Billions Pour into BioHealth Capital Region to Battle COVID-19

Over the past nine months, more than $7 billion in federal funding has poured into the BioHealth Capital Region aimed at the battle against COVID-19 and has shown a spotlight on the broad impact biopharma life science companies and academic institutions are making in the fight against the pandemic.

“The moons are aligned over the BioHealth Capital Region right now and people are beginning to see how important the region is in helping to address the research development and manufacturing needs to address this dreaded disease,” said Richard Bendis, president and chief executive officer of BioHealth Innovation.

Bendis said the infusion of federal dollars demonstrated the strength and quality of the research being conducted across the region. Many of the companies that have received finances from the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed COVID-19 response program already had established relationships with government organizations like the National Institutes of Health and Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), a division of Health and Human Services. While the funds are earmarked for coronavirus research, Bendis said the impact of the financing will go beyond the ongoing pandemic. He likened the finances to venture capital investments and said the funds have been a “shot in the arm” for the region. And that means the Warp Speed money has positioned the region for long-term growth.

“We have a robust platform that will only grow. The Warp Speed money could also accelerate other programs and increase the clinical program pipelines,” Bendis said.

Bendis pointed out that Maryland-based Novavax is acquiring a new 122,000 square-foot manufacturing facility that could add more than 400 jobs. The expansion is a result from Warp Speed dollars, he said. Additionally, some smaller companies have also been able to take on new programs that have broadened their pipelines, while also pivoting short-term focus on research surrounding the pandemic.

Ulyana Desiderio, director of BioHealth and Life Sciences for the Maryland Department of Commerce, agreed with Bendis’ assessments. Research into infectious diseases has been one of the strengths of the BioHealth Capital Region and that positioned companies in the area for federal investments, she said. Four of the top 10 recipients of Warp Speed money have footholds in Maryland – GlaxoSmithKline, Novavax, AstraZeneca, and Emergent BioSolutions. Virginia’s Phlow also received $360 million in funding from Warp Speed, marking the fifth regional company included in the government’s efforts. In addition to Warp Speed money, Desiderio pointed out that other federal monies from NIH and the Department of Defense have also been invested in the region over the past few months.

“We always talk about how strong the ecosystem here is in the life sciences and COVID 19 gave the state the opportunity to shine due to its strengths,” she said.

Not only has the private sector benefited from federal funding, Desiderio said the universities across the state are also receiving federal funds to combat the pandemic. Johns Hopkins received $25 million for a convalescent plasma study from the Department of Defense and the University of Maryland has been conducting clinical trials and studying antiviral compounds. Additionally, the universities have workforce training programs aimed at the life sciences, which will be critical for future growth, Desiderio added.

“The universities are a hotbed of innovation in the fight against the pandemic,” she said.

Showcasing existing strengths will lead to growth not only in the area’s existing strengths but also in new directions that will expand Maryland’s life science ecosystem. One area that could see some growth in the coming years will be digital health technologies. The pandemic has created new opportunities in this sector, such as telehealth capabilities, that will continue to expand.

Bendis agreed the billions of Warp Speed dollars and other investments will lead to the growth of the BioHealth Capital Region. He anticipates more commercial-ready companies will move into the region to take advantage of the deep pool of talent as well as less-expensive real estate for new builds. Compared to the top three biotech clusters of Boston, San Francisco and New York, the mid-Atlantic region’s real estate costs are at least half as much.

 The COVID-19 work will also draw greater attention from venture capitalists, he added.

One key component Bendis would like to see develop in the region is an incubator or accelerator. He noted a collective of industry leaders across the region are evaluating the possibility of a pandemic and biodefense center that could be located in the BioHealth Capital Region. It’s logical that such a facility would be located in the region given the depth of research into infectious diseases conducted by companies like Novavax, federal institutions such as NIH and HHS, and universities like Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland. The expected growth could propel the BioHealth Capital Region into the third-place spot on the Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News Top 10 U.S. biopharma clusters list. The BioHealth Capital Region is ranked fourth, just behind New York. Bendis said that could swiftly change as eyes currently remain focused on the region and growth is just around the corner.

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Alex Keown is a freelance journalist who writes about a variety of subjects including the pharma, biotech, and life science industries. Prior to freelancing, Alex has served as a staff writer and editor for several publications.