More than a dozen Md. biotech companies are working on new COVID-19 vaccines, tests 

By  – Reporter, Baltimore Business Journal  –

More than a dozen biotechnology and life sciences companies throughout Maryland are working full steam ahead on developing tools to confront COVID-19, and are ready to share their progress and resources with competitors.

Maryland vaccine maker Novavax Inc. made news in the earlier days of the novel coronavirus outbreak when it announced it would be making a vaccine candidate for COVID-19. More recently, it was also announced that another Maryland firm, contract manufacturer Emergent Biosolutions Inc., would be partnering with Novavax to accelerate production and distribution of its vaccine whenever it’s ready for the clinic.

Novavax’s is one of many vaccine development efforts that has garnered national attention in recent months. A vaccine developed by Massachusetts’ Modern Inc. even began human trials earlier this week. Still, most industry experts still estimate that will take about 12 to 18 months before a viable vaccine candidate is brought to market in the U.S.

On a local level, there are many other biotechnology firms building on the momentum of Novavax and others, looking to lend their skills and capabilities to advancing the fight against coronavirus. Some are other vaccine makers, or diagnostic test makers, some specialize in pharmaceutical manufacturing and others have access to specific tools that could help other firms accelerate development process.

Marty Rosendale, CEO of the Maryland Tech Council, said he saw an opportunity to bring all those Maryland companies together in this time of crisis. Rosendale has helped organize meet and greet sessions, inviting many of Maryland’s biotech firms working on coronavirus countermeasures. He said the meetings will allow the companies to share what they’re working on with peers, and provide an opportunity for them to discuss sharing resources where possible. The first meeting, hosted by the tech council’s Maryland Life Sciences division, will be held via video conference on Friday. More than 15 local firms will be participating.

“We want to make sure everyone has met each other, understands what everyone else is working on and what resources are available in the market,” Rosendale said.

Rosendale said the meetings are also an opportunity for him and his colleagues to better understand what the companies might want to communicate to legislators and public officials. The tech council represents the interests of Maryland’s technology and life science companies in Annapolis, and Rosendale said he plans to use the group’s governmental connections at the state and federal levels to support the companies working “on the frontlines” to develop potentially life saving technologies however they may need.

Gaithersburg’s Altimmune is among those companies. The firm, which has previously developed vaccines against anthrax and influenza infections, recently decided to pivot its efforts to focus specifically on developing a new kind of COVID-19 vaccine. CEO Vipin Garg said Altimmune is looking to fast track an intranasal vaccine, as opposed to those like Moderna’s which is administered through injections. The vaccine would also be very stable, he said, able to survive
transport and storage at room temperature.

Nearby in Rockville, another biotech firm that has previously focused on developing vaccines to fight malaria, is also developing a COVID-19 vaccine. Stephen Hoffman, CEO of Sanaria Inc. said his company has been collaborating with Protein Potential LLC , yet another vaccine maker, to develop its malaria prevention drugs. Now, he said the firms feel it is their “responsibility” to apply their vaccine making expertise to coronavirus.
The fact that so many of Maryland’s biotech firms have shown a willingness to come together and collaborate is unusual and “tremendous,” Rosendale said. He believes it speaks to companies’ desire to prioritize fighting the spread of COVID-19 over winning a pharmaceutical arms race. He hopes the upcoming meetings will facilitate more Maryland firms combining efforts to increase efficiency and impact.

“Under any normal circumstances, many of these companies are competitors,” Rosendale said. “It’s encouraging to see some early collaborations, like the one between Emergent and Novavax. It’s clear that everyone’s eye is on the ball of stopping this pandemic.”

Rosendale’s sentiment seems to be shared among the biotechs themselves. “Our philosophy is that viable vaccines should be developed in parallel. We need lots of shots on goal to give ourselves as much of a chance as possible to fight this,” Garg said. “This is the time to complement each other, so we can all come up with a solution to this problem quickly.” Hoffman said his company isn’t worried about outpacing other vaccine makers right now. There may be billions of people who ultimately need coronavirus vaccinations. Getting that done as quickly as possible will likely mean lots of different products from lots of different sources will be needed, he said.

Here are some of the other Maryland companies redirecting their efforts and collaborating on battling the continued spread of the novel coronavirus:

• 20/20 Gene Systems (Rockville) — Manufacturing a licensed COVID-19 test that was developed in China for emergency distribution in the U.S.
• GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) (Rockville) — Offering to share its vaccine adjuvant, an agent that can be added to vaccines to help boost immune responses, to others developing vaccines
• Children’s National Hospital (Laurel) — Offering clinical research collaborations to regional biotech companies developing COVID-19 vaccines and diagnostics
• GenArraytion Inc. (Rockville) — Providing validated COVID-19 gene sequencing tools
• Integrated Biotherapeutics (IBT) (Rockville) — Working on vaccine development around COVID-19
• NEXT Molecular Analytics (Rockville) — Providing gene sequencing services relating to COVID-19
• Pharmaceutics International Inc. (PII) (Hunt Valley) — Providing contract manufacturing services, with access to sterile fill and finish operations
• Sequella Inc. (Rockville) — Directing anti-infective drug manufacturing capabilities for combatting COVID-19
• Asell (Owings Mills) — Providing expertise on diagnostic development for BARDA
• Qiagen (Germantown) — Ramping up manufacturing of test sample processing kits, with the addition of COVID-19 to its infectious disease test panel
• Navitas Life Sciences (Rockville) — Offering clinical research capacity to companies working on COVID-19 solutions
• Zalgen Labs (Germantown) — Developing diagnostic tests and antibody-based
therapeutics to help detect and potentially treat COVID-19 infections

Notably, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. has offered to share its expertise, resources and tools with companies like these, biotech firms large and small across the region, that may need a helping hand in working on COVID-19 tests, vaccines and therapeutics. The company will also be involved in Friday’s meeting, Rosendale said