Local and national leaders say the coronavirus outbreak has demonstrated why there needs to be more medical supply production and biotechnology development in the United States.
Thousands of the basic chemical compounds in the medicines most commonly used in the U.S. come from China, according to witnesses at a March 12 Senate hearing chaired by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida.
“Coronavirus has brought to the fore U.S. dependence on a single country for its generic medicine supply, and exposed the risks to the nation’s health when the dominant global supplier country shuts down production,” Rosemary Gibson, senior advisor at the independent, nonpartisan bioethics research institute, The Hastings Center, wrote in written testimony submitted to the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship.
Dr. Charles Lockwood, senior vice president of USF Health and dean of the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, voiced a similar sentiment speaking at the Vinoy Business Alliance on Thursday.
“If there was ever an example of why we need strong biotech in this country, it’s coronavirus,” Lockwood said.
University of South Florida last week broke ground on a new $42 million, three-story, 120,000-square-foot research building on the USF Tampa campus.
“Hopefully half the space will be for biotech development, because we’re at capacity right now,” Lockwood said.
In addition to a facility with laboratory space, two other factors are required to develop a biotechnology segment in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, Lockwood said.
The first factor is attracting more researchers who get funding from the National Institutes of Health.
“You’ve got to have a critical mass. We’ve increased it 50 percent in the last five years. I would like to add another 100 NIH-funded investigators. That’s the goal and hopefully (USF) President Currall will be supportive,” Lockwood said.
USF now has preeminence status — the highest designation a research institution can earn from the state of Florida — as well as an enhanced agreement with Tampa General Hospital, designed to create an academic medical center. Both those should help attract NIH-funded researchers, Lockwood said.
Venture capital is the other factor.
“To get these serious researchers here that want to start companies, they want access to venture capital, particularly venture capital in this space, which there isn’t a lot of in this state,” Lockwood said.
A lot of strategies can be employed to generate that.
“In Ohio, the governor created a venture capital fund that supported Ohio State researchers,” said Lockwood, who was previously dean at the Ohio State University College of Medicine. “We started a neuroscience company with the governor’s support and got money from Medtronics and Cardinal Health and others. He really was relentless about that. We need that kind of leadership from Tallahassee to jump start access to capital to build biotech around here.”
Small business focus
Most initial drug development occurs at universities and small biotech companies, not big pharmaceutical firms, Gerard Anderson, professor of health policy and management and international health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Rubio’s Senate committee.
Four small biotech companies currently have a coronavirus vaccine in human clinical trials, Anderson said.
It typically takes 12-to-18 months from discovery to market for vaccines, he said.
“I think the key question is, how do we create the right incentives so we are not in a race to save people after an outbreak occurs, but are willing to build a robust system to develop products to prepare for the next epidemic?” Anderson said. “In order to sustain development over the long run, the federal government should support small businesses, by guaranteeing the purchase of a certain volume of vaccine (if it is approved by the FDA) at a certain price, or by giving them an advance market commitment to purchase safe and effective products after approval.”
Anderson also cited a shortage of masks, gowns and other health supplies, and he warned that small businesses outside of the healthcare industry, including restaurants and stores, were in economic jeopardy as people heed warnings to avoid crowds and stay at home.
After the hearing, Rubio said he would introduce legislation to immediately open up the Small Business Administration’s 7(a) loan program, offered by banks nationwide, to provide near-term relief to small businesses that face payroll and operational challenges due to economic effects from the coronavirus pandemic, echoing comments made by President Trump on Wednesday.