How Arizona’s bioscience innovators are helping the world overcome COVID-19

Business News | 2 Jun |

Spring cleaning took on a whole new meaning in 2020.

Spring cleaning in 2020 was not a recommitment to household chores but instead a society-wide commitment to washing our hands and everything we touch.  Handshakes are a thing of the past. Wearing a mask in public is a sign of social responsibility and for many of us, working from home has become the norm. For many, spring has brought financial hardships, illness, or the loss of loved ones.

Seeds of change

On January 20, 2020, based on data from the World Health Organization, 282 confirmed cases of 2019-nCoV (COVID-19) had been reported from four countries including China (278 cases), Thailand (2 cases), Japan (1 case) and the Republic of Korea (1 case).  And, on that date, the first case on U.S. soil was reported in Washington state. The first case in Arizona was reported on January 26th. By March 20th, COVID-19 had spread across the world with 234,073 confirmed cases including 81,300 in China, 41,035 in Italy, 18,407 in Iran, and 10,442 in the U.S. with 63 in Arizona.

By April 20, in Arizona and in many places around the world, people were living under stay-at-home orders. “Flatten the curve” and “slow the spread” were heard every day. More than 2.4 million people globally and more than 20,000 in Arizona are known to have been infected by COVID-19.

Before this is over, COVID-19 will have touched all of us in one way or another. Some of us will have lost family or friends. Others will have memories of illness, of job loss, of new ways of learning, or have memories of serving in ways they never imagined possible in 2019.

There are moments in history that people remember throughout their lives. They can tell you where they were and what they were doing. This is one of those times.

Decades of Arizona investments pay off

Joan Koerber-Walker is president and CEO of the Arizona Bioindustry Association and chairman of the Opportunity Through Entrepreneurship Foundation.

Over two decades ago, people in Arizona committed to investing to build our state’s bioscience and healthcare sector. Arizonans kept that commitment through good times and rough times. The result is today’s hospital systems, private research institutes, universities and medical schools. We trained, attracted and retained our talent base, growing our workforce year after year. We built up our labs and research centers, trained scientists, and medical professionals, started new businesses, and invested in them so they could grow.

Arizona’s bioscience and healthcare sector has been deeply engaged in supporting our community from the time COVID-19 began to spread and throughout the health emergency.

Since mid-January, the Translational Genomics Research Institute, an affiliate of City of Hope (TGen) has been actively engaged in the world-wide effort to test for the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 and to establish a statewide tracking network for COVID-19 infections. After receiving Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the FDA for its genomic-based test in early March, TGen began working with federal, state, county and tribal governments, private healthcare providers and others to expand testing for COVID-19 in Arizona.

The Critical Path Institute (C-Path) is partnering with regulators and innovators to create tools that support the development and evaluation of therapies for treatment of COVID-19.

TRIF, the Technology & Research Initiative Fund, is supported by each of us every time we pay sales tax in Arizona. A tiny fraction of your sales tax (.072 percent of 1 penny or .00072 on each dollar spent) supports research talent and research programs at ASU, NAU, and UArizona. Today, these universities are working on vaccines for COVID-19, new medicines to treat people who are infected, personal protection equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers and first responders, and testing solutions so we can determine who is infected with COVID-19 as well as who has recovered from it and may be safe from future infection. All of us helped make this possible.

Twenty years ago, Arizona had only one medical school. Today, the University of Arizona has two medical schools. A.T. Still, Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine, and Midwestern University are training future physicians in Arizona. Soon, Creighton University will be, too. Additionally, our universities and community colleges across the state are training nurses and medical technologists. Thanks to our investments in medical education, we have more highly trained medical professionals to help us through this crisis.

Arizona’s hospitals have made major investments in facilities and talent. Today, when we need them most, our healthcare teams are meeting the challenge and serving on the front lines to help people with COVID-19 and all of the other health challenges that did not disappear when COVID-19 began to spread.

Medical innovators step up

Meeting this challenge takes a global response. AZBio member companies are developing solutions to help diagnose and treat those with COVID-19. In addition to applying their scientific expertise to find ways to diagnose, treat and prevent infections from the virus, the biopharmaceutical and MedTech industry is providing financial support and in-kind donations to organizations and collaborating with U.S. and global health authorities to combat this global public health emergency.

Medtronic continues to make progress in increasing ventilator production worldwide. As of March 18, the company reported having increased production over 40 percent, and being on-track to more than double its capacity to manufacture and supply ventilators in response to COVID-19.

The list of AZBio member companies working on treatments and vaccines includes Amgen, Aqualung Therapeutics, Genentech, Gilead, GSK, Johnson & Johnson, Novartis, Pfizer, Sanofi and others.

Roche, Becton Dickinson (BD), TGen and GenoSensor have received Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA so their COVID-19 diagnostic tests can be used in Arizona and across the country.

TGen and our universities have increased testing capacity. This adds to the testing being done at our hospitals, the State Test Lab, Sonora Quest and Lab Corp.

Fry Laboratories has developed a Next Generation DNA sequencing solution for COVID-19 which can run 1,152 patient samples on one run of an Illumina MiSeq. They are distributing this technology to our nation’s largest clinical labs to help address the nationwide testing shortfall.

Telemedicine experts like GlobalMed are advancing the use of remote patient care while companies like AdviNow Medical are helping to route patients to the most appropriate point of care so that we do not overburden our emergency rooms. Life365 has developed solution sets to enable healthcare providers to manage patient care efficiently and safely at home.

PADT is engaged in several projects to assist the community with much needed PPE and critical solutions for medical devices in short supply.

At the Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation, a life science incubator in Phoenix, Xcellerate Biomedical has stepped up to manufacture PPE, while Desert Platforms is working to get FDA approval to expand our supply of ventilators. Fashion designers and sewists at FABRIC in Tempe are manufacturing FDA-certified reusable isolation gowns.

Everyone is doing their part to save lives and to get us through this crisis.

When we emerge

In its biennial report on the progress of the biosciences in Arizona on April 15, 2020, the Flinn Foundation said Arizona’s bio and healthcare industries include more than 126,139 bioscience jobs as of 2018, including 29,569 non-hospital bioscience jobs. The non-hospital bioscience job growth rate was 15 percent between 2016 and 2018 in Arizona, compared with 7.2 percent nationally. Venture capital investment reached a 20-year high, and millions of square feet of real estate was being developed to house Arizona’s growing biotech and MedTech industries. Like so many other sectors of our economy, COVID-19 has created a significant shift in focus.

When this crisis has passed, and it will, Arizona’s bioscience innovators and healthcare systems will shift back to doing what we have always done — combining business and science to make life better for people in Arizona and around the world by discovering, developing and delivering life-changing and lifesaving treatments and tools.

As our focus shifts back to a wider range of cures and treatments, we will need the community’s help. As new innovations are developed, we need to move them forward. This will take funding for development, clinical trials, and all of the investments that make “miracles” possible.

AZBio is working to build a new model that will help fund early stage life science innovation in Arizona forever. It is the kind of big idea that Arizonans can get behind and make a lasting difference, just as our big idea to build a bioscience sector 20 years ago is paying off today. We call it AZAdvances because that is what Arizonans do and what Arizonans create when we work together.

 

Joan Koerber-Walker is president and CEO of the Arizona Bioindustry Association and chairman of the Opportunity Through Entrepreneurship Foundation.

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