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 preserve 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 slowdowns in China. To that observation, one might ask: Why would we depend on any foreign country for such critical products 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 within 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 generate billions of gloves per year for health care, government, retail and hospitality clients, while minimizing shortages in front-line settings like hospitals.
“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 a new $4 million water tank, all of which should boost future potential to land more manufacturing jobs, the release added.
In the Richmond region, 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 medicines.
The bill also would prioritize U.S. manufacturing of such reserves. Per a VCU news release, generic drugs constitute nearly 90% of all prescriptions filled in the U.S., but roughly 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 recent RTD 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 health care reality, but it also stands to boost Richmond’s emerging economic cluster of biomedical expertise. 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 medicine reserve, 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 and its partners have 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 discover more cost-effective methods of acquiring drugs; and AMPAC, which specializes in solving chemical challenges associated with manufacturing key pharmaceutical ingredients.
Eighteen-plus 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.