Strengths of Our Region: Combating Infectious Diseases Forum Roundup

Over the past nine months, more than $7 billion in federal money has poured into the BioHealth Capital Region in support of therapies, diagnostics, and vaccines against COVID-19. In that short time, the region has shown its importance in halting the spread of the ongoing pandemic.

At the 6th Annual BioHealth Capital Region Forum, COVID-19 was a central focus of attendees and panelists. One panel, Strength of Our Region: Combating Infectious Diseases, included representatives from four companies in the region that provided an overview of the region’s role in combating the novel coronavirus as well as other infectious threats. Company representatives from Novavax, Emergent BioSolutions, BioFactura, and Aperiomics pointed to the work conducted by their organizations in COVID, as well as other infectious diseases, including Ebola, influenza, RSV, and SARS. The panel was moderated by Karen Smith, chief medical officer of Emergent BioSolutions, who said she was struck early on in the pandemic that companies in the BioHealth Capital region battling the pandemic are “all in the same storm, just in slightly different boats.” She said they are all trying to figure out a solution to this pandemic but in different manners due to their areas of expertise.

“Our organizations are different, and the places we started are different,” she said.

Throughout the 45-minute session, Smith posed questions to the panelists about their core missions and how they have had to adapt to COVID-19. When the panel was first selected for the 2020 conference, COVID-19 was not on the radar, but the pandemic highlighted the frontline efforts of the companies, as well as lessons learned over the course of the past nine months.

Crystal Icenhour, an infectious disease expert and chief executive officer of software company Aperiomics, said the pandemic has primarily taught the world about the importance of improved testing of viral infections to curb them from becoming global pandemics. Virginia-based Aperiomics is focused on identifying tens of thousands of microorganisms in order to screen for every known parasite, bacterium, fungi, and virus in a single test. The technology in development by Aperiomics will be essential to mitigating future pandemics, Icenhour said. She added that her company’s testing technology will become foundational for the prevention of another global pandemic that will catch the world off its guard.

“We need to be able to leverage those technologies in various smart ways to try to get in front of these things from happening again,” Icenhour said.

Viral infectious agents are the primary focus of Maryland-based Novavax. The company has made significant headway in developing a vaccine candidate against COVID-19 but has also had success in combating Ebola, Influenza, H1N1, and other viruses. At the beginning of 2020, the company was focused on its Phase III influenza study, but the emergence of COVID-19 forced everything to “change on a dime,” said Vivek Shinde, vice president of Vaccine Clinical Development for Novavax. The pandemic forced the company to move quickly from that into developing a vaccine candidate against the coronavirus. Over the course of the year, the company’s workforce has doubled to more than 400 people to meet the demands of rapidly developing a vaccine. Shinde said the company’s technology platform lent itself to being capable of pivoting to fight the pandemic.

Over the past year, Maryland’s BioFactura has tripled in size, largely due to a $67.4 million contract from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) for the development of its Smallpox Biodefense Therapeutic as a defense against a potential outbreak, said Darryl Sampey, founder of BioFactura. The contract has been a foundation for the company to expand its capabilities in targeting viral health threats, including Ebola and Marburg. The BARDA contract has been a key to BioFactura’s growth and its ability to forge collaborations with additional health agencies. Sampey said it’s important to be able to work with others and be able to quickly address rising needs.

The panelists also pointed to future challenges facing their companies once the current pandemic is in the rearview mirror. For BioFactura, hiring will be a challenge. Sampey said finding people to add to his company’s team will be a key challenge. Sampey said it’s an employees’ market these days, so there’s a lot of competition for new hires.

For Icenhour, capital needs for her company are on the small side because they’re not a clinical company. However, during the pandemic, she said it’s been difficult raising funds from angel investors because of all the uncertainty. Icenhour also recalled challenges her company faced in appeasing regulatory hurdles for its testing. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration negated some of its criteria for Emergency Use Authorization of testing after Aperiomics had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to meet those standards.

There have been positive changes, too. Novavax’s Shinde pointed to the growth of the company, including an expanded global manufacturing footprint and a significant infusion of cash. Those events, coupled with the reality his company may successfully develop a COVID-19 vaccine, has put a spotlight on the successes of Novavax, he said.

“We’re trying to deliver and execute on a lot of things at once, and so, that’s both a good problem and a challenging one, too,” Shinde said.

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