How did the United States, a global superpower, get caught so flatfooted when the COVID-19 pandemic hit?
A big reason was sleeping through the decline of domestic pharmaceutical manufacturing, allowing most development and manufacturing capabilities and jobs to leave the US for foreign countries. The economics of globalization pushed the hands-on, bricks-and-mortar type biotech work to countries with lower taxes, lower wages and less oversight of environmental and safety concerns. However, the pandemic showed that globalism has limits to its utility in the face of a crisis.
That the pandemic exposed these vulnerabilities to our enemies makes it even more urgent that we prepare for the next or biowarfare attack that could lead the world to close borders and shatter supply chains. The US is especially vulnerable because we are so dependent upon globally integrated supply chains. Historically, the production of medicines and vaccines for the US population was domestically based. America had a robust industrial policy that led to our becoming the world’s manufacturing powerhouse during World War II. However, in recent decades, pharmaceutical manufacturing was largely shipped overseas. Companies moved manufacturing to locations with tax incentives, such as Ireland, or countries that had cheaper labor and lax environmental laws, such as India and China. Moving high-tech jobs offshore also decreased the opportunities for our domestic STEM-educated workers to work and live here in the US
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we at Tonix Pharmaceuticals joined the race to create a COVID-19 vaccine based on a live-virus vaccine platform that we had been developing for several years. We believed our work was necessary and relevant to the new public health challenge playing out on a global scale. Because we relied on outside contractors to conduct research and develop products, we were outrun by other entities working on vaccines based on other technologies, such as mRNA. For Tonix to be competitive, we realized we would need to assemble our own internal, domestic capabilities to develop vaccine technologies without reliance on contractors or open borders. We have dedicated ourselves to domestic biotech research, development and manufacturing, and to bringing high-paying jobs to our communities. Rebuilding US biotech capabilities will take substantial investments and patience. We encourage the federal government to join us in prioritizing domestic biotech research, development and manufacturing capabilities so that we will not be caught flat-footed again.
As a participant in the recent Montana “On the Rise” Economic Summit held in Bozeman, I highlighted Tonix’s belief in investing in domestic biotech research and development, and manufacturing located here in the US As I write this column, we have three facilities in various stages of operation, construction and planning. Our infectious disease Research and Development center in Frederick, Maryland is operational. The Aadvanced Development Center in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, is expected to open this summer. And our commercial manufacturing center in Hamilton, Montana is almost “shovel-ready.” Tonix, like other companies highlighted at the economic summit, know that Montana is and will continue to be a leader among states in attracting new companies.
America is renowned for our ability to reinvent ourselves in the face of new challenges. The future of our health and our economy hinges on ongoing public-private partnerships. It is the duty of those in the scientific community to find new and better ways to protect and heal people. It is the duty of those in the biotech industry to develop life-saving vaccines and treatments. And it is the responsibility of our elected officials to expand public investment in pandemic preparedness. By prioritizing domestic manufacturing and uniting private ingenuity with public cooperation we can prevent future public health crises.
Seth Lederman, MD is the CEO of Tonix Pharmaceuticals, a New Jersey-based biopharmaceutical company which is developing new vaccines for monkeypox and smallpox and for COVID-19 while planning the construction of a commercial scale manufacturing center in Hamilton, Montana.