In late March 2020, state and federal leaders grappled with a worst-case scenario amid a public health crisis. As COVID-19 spread across the U.S., providers were facing a critical shortage of personal protective equipment.
Masks, gowns, gloves and other items were considered precious commodities — so much so that Gov. Ralph Northam directed Virginia medical facilities to postpone elective surgeries to help conserve those materials. Two days after that decision, Northam pleaded during a press conference for a “national solution” to curb the deficiency of supplies.
“We’re all out there bidding literally against each other,” he told reporters. “Here in Virginia we’re bidding against our own hospital systems, other states and the federal government.”
One of the primary causes Northam cited for disrupted supply chains was manufacturing delays in China. To that, one might react: Why would we depend on any foreign country for such critical supplies in the first place?
The pandemic reinforced the need for self-sufficiency. New local manufacturing opportunities show we have learned something from COVID.
In recent weeks, the commonwealth made major inroads on two medical fronts. In Southwest Virginia, Northam announced Monday that Blue Star NBR and American Glove Innovations plan to create 2,500 jobs over the next three to five years making PPE at Progress Park in Wythe County. Per a release from the governor’s office, the $714 million project would produce billions of gloves per year for health care, government, retail and hospitality clients.
“We felt that there was a very timely opportunity to not be dependent on the whims of Asia when we have right here, in America, all the skills, capabilities and intelligence to be market-leading, self-sufficient and highly competitive,” Blue Star-AGI Co-Chief Executive Officer Marc Jason said in a statement.
This economic development deal was aided by $8.5 million in infrastructure upgrades by the state to Progress Park. These investments include a $3 million expansion of the Fort Chiswell Wastewater Plant, a $1.5 million extension of public sewer infrastructure and $4 million for a new water tank, all of which should boost future potential to land more manufacturing jobs, the release added.
Similar pandemic-driven lessons are being applied in the pharmaceutical space. Leaders gathered in late September at Virginia Commonwealth University’s College of Engineering to discuss new legislation that would institute a national strategic stockpile of key ingredients for generic medicine, while prioritizing manufacturing here at home of such reserves. Per a VCU news release, generic drugs constitute 90% of all prescriptions filled in the U.S., but 87% of active pharmaceutical ingredient facilities for such treatments are housed in other countries.
“Clearly, we really need to reassess our production here at home,” said U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, a co-sponsor of the bill, in a Richmond Times-Dispatch news report. “As we all know far too well, the COVID-19 crisis demonstrated the vulnerabilities of our supply chain.”
The bill not only would address that medical reality, but it also stands to boost an emerging economic cluster of biomedical expertise in Richmond. In May 2020, still early in the pandemic, Phlow Corp. — a startup pharmaceutical development company co-founded by area entrepreneur and doctor Eric Edwards, and VCU Professor Frank Gupton — landed a $354 million federal contract to work on the national reserve issue, as well as components of emerging COVID treatments.
“This should be just like the strategic oil reserve,” Gupton said at last month’s VCU event. “You build up that capability in the event that you have some sort of disaster.”
Amid the disastrous consequences of COVID, Phlow has helped build a foundation for economic prosperity. The startup has developed relationships with Civica Rx, a Utah-based nonprofit that works with health care providers on the availability and affordability of generic medicines; the VCU Medicines for All Institute, an arm of VCU Engineering that seeks to root out waste and find more cost-effective methods of acquiring drugs; and AMPAC, which specializes in solving chemical challenges associated with manufacturing key pharmaceutical ingredients.
Eighteen months after Northam’s plea for a “national solution” to the PPE arms race, it’s clear that Virginia is finding local solutions. And these projects are about more than fulfilling the need for lifesaving gloves or medicines. They’re bringing stable, good-paying jobs to Virginia families and their surrounding local economies. We’ve learned something from COVID.
—Adapted from an editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch