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Two square miles in Portage, near Kalamazoo, on Monday became the epicenter of hopes that the United States will be distributing coronavirus vaccines by year-end.
That property in southwest Michigan is home to the largest manufacturing site in the world for drug giant Pfizer Inc. On Monday, Pfizer [NYSE: PFE] and its partner, Germany’s BioNTech [Nasdaq: BNTX], announced that their coronavirus vaccine appears to be 90 percent effective and should be ready for production – at that Michigan site – by late November.
If all goes as planned, and the companies are able to get Emergency Use Authorization from the federal Food and Drug Administration, the rollout of a vaccine to fight the global pandemic could begin this year. The two injections that appear to offer protection against the virus will be free to Americans. Unclear so far is how that will take place, and on what timetable.
“Based on current projections we expect to produce globally up to 50 million vaccine doses in 2020 and up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021,” Pfizer said Monday in a statement.
The impact “is obviously huge from a public health standpoint,” said Stephen Rapundalo, president and CEO of MichBio, an advocacy organization for Michigan’s $28 billion life sciences industry.
It’s also resonating in Portage, home to about 53,000 people and one of the state’s most active life sciences corridors, where an estimated 2,200 Pfizer employees work and companies like Stryker and Zoetis continue to grow.
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“The virus has changed people’s lives,” said Joseph La Margo, Portage city manager. “We're hearing about new cases and how hospitals are becoming overwhelmed once again. It’s frightening. But then … there’s this glimmer of hope.”
News of the vaccine’s progress sent stocks soaring, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 834.57 points, or 2.95 percent. It closed at 29,157.97, its biggest one-day gain since June 5, according to CNBC reports.
Pfizer climbed 7.69 percent, closing at $39.20 per share, while BioNTech gained 13.91 percent, closing at $104.80.
The stock market boost may show economic optimism after industries like restaurants and airlines suffered since March as fear of the infection spreading closed businesses, forced others to adapt to stringent safety protocols and prompted fears among consumers. Unemployment due to the pandemic has affected millions of Americans this year, with the most recent data showing that between March 15 and Oct. 31, 2.92 million Michigan residents applied for unemployment, receiving $25.58 billion in benefits.
The vaccine moving closer to approval also comes as coronavirus cases continue to mount across most areas of the country, where at least 10 million people have tested positive for the virus. In Michigan, the most recent case count averaged 4,505 positive cases each day for Sunday and Monday, a 34 percent increase from a week earlier. The positive test rate reached 11.5 percent, up from below 3 percent earlier this fall, according to state data.
Pfizer and BioNTech signed a deal in July with the federal government to receive a $1.95 billion payment upon the receipt of the first 100 million doses, following FDA authorization or approval. According to the agreement, the United States can receive up to an additional 500 million doses. The companies have a deal with the United Kingdom for 30 million doses and are negotiating with other entities, including a possible 200 million doses for the European Union.
Vaccine production will reach Pfizer’s Portage facility after it starts at two other company plants. It will start with raw material production in St. Louis. The drug substance then will be purified in Andover, Massachusetts, before being shipped to Portage.
In Portage, the drug is combined with other raw materials. The “bulk vaccine will then be transferred to an aseptic filling line where it will be filled into a sterilized vial and capped. It will then undergo 100% inspection before it is transferred to the packaging lines,” according to the release.
“We're hearing about new cases and how hospitals are becoming overwhelmed once again. It’s frightening. But then … there’s this glimmer of hope.” — Joseph La Margo, Portage city manager
Packed containers will go into blast freezers, the company said, because it needs to be stored at -109.3 degrees F. It then will be staged in storage freezers “awaiting final packing into dry ice shipping containers.”
Michigan can celebrate its role in the vaccine, state officials said. Pfizer is based in New York, but it has a long presence in Michigan, where its Upjohn division was founded. While it closed R&D operations in Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor in 2007, its employment just in Portage was 2,200 before it announced a planned expansion in 2018.
“This is great news for our families, our frontline workers, and our small business owners,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. “Michigan has always been on the forefront of innovation, and I am proud to see that Pfizer, a Michigan business and one of the largest pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities in the world, will produce the vaccine in our great state. “
The expansion in Portage is valued at $465 million, including $148 million in a 400,000-square-foot processing facility to add a sterile injection production line to its campus. It hasn’t begun, La Margo told Bridge Michigan on Monday.
The move will add about 450 new jobs in Kalamazoo County, said Jill Bland, managing partner at Southwest Michigan First, an economic development group based in Kalamazoo. Pfizer at the time projected a total investment of $1.1 billion there through 2024.
“In a lot of ways, Pfizer had planned for being able to produce vaccines and being on the cutting edge of that area,” Bland said.
The Portage plant also makes active pharmaceutical ingredients and medical devices, shipping at least 140 million units of injections and medications. The company says its products are shipped to 113 countries.
Rapundalo, of MichBio, said he hopes the attention from the coronavirus injection will help Michigan’s life science industry grow.
“We have the ability, we have the talent, we have the legacy in this space,” Rapundalo said. “These are high-paying jobs. Skilled, knowledge-based jobs that we really want to be able to have here. Particularly since we're one of the largest producers of scientists and engineers in the country.”
The news also resonates in the historically heavy manufacturing state of Michigan, where the pandemic and shortages of supplies for personal protective equipment (PPE) reignited calls to “reshore” more production to the United States, Rapundalo added.
“I would challenge our state elected officials to focus on that and talk about what sort of policies would leverage that,” he said. At the top of his list: restoring the state’s research and development tax credit.
“Michigan is one of only four states that doesn’t have one,” Rapundalo said. “We desperately need that back, especially for small to midsize companies.”
Bland, of Southwest Michigan First, agreed that the R&D tax credit could make a difference in recruiting still more life sciences businesses to the state, which is home to 1,300 of them and 130,000 life sciences workers. Bland said renewing the Good Jobs for Michigan tax credit also could make a difference. That program ended in December 2019 after awarding tax benefits worth $57.4 million to three firms, including Pfizer, that together promise to create 1,354 jobs within five years. Critics said the jobs cost the state more than $40,000 for each job it created.
Meanwhile, development of the vaccine is just one among several in progress among global pharmaceutical companies. That one of them appears to be weeks away from production is “phenomenal,” Rapundalo said.
“Normally this process would have taken years,” he said.
However, he cautioned, “there is still a ways to go.” The volume of doses presents logistical challenges, and the company is trying to do real-time tracking. The scale of distribution, he said, hasn’t been seen before.
“It almost reminds me of a D-Day effort,” Rapundalo said. “The technology alone, coupled with the integration across a huge geography … just staggers the mind.”