Biotech Employees Working to Battle COVID-19

April 16, 2020 8:06 am

While states across the country have divided industries into essential and shuttered, Americans know, now more than ever, that every job matters. From the gig workers delivering groceries to the commercial cleaners keeping manufacturing plants safe to the small retailers finding novel ways to eke out a living while their doors are forced shut—each of these workers has demonstrated a toughness and resilience that will carry the nation through this crisis.


This blog has never highlighted the stories of the men and women who serve their fellow Americans by developing the drugs that help us live longer, healthier lives. A major oversight on our part, and one that we hope to rectify today.


According to PhRMA, the U.S. biopharmaceutical industry employed more than 811,000 individuals in 2017 and supported another 3.2 million U.S. jobs through its varied supply base and from the economic impact stemming from industry and worker spending.


Firms in the sector invested an estimated $102 billion into research and development (R&D) in 2018, which is 17.7 percent of all domestic U.S. business R&D. Approximately 146,000 industry employees work in R&D, the largest number of any U.S. sector, including the aerospace, automotive, and semiconductor industries. In fact, biopharma companies devote 22.8 percent of its total domestic employment to R&D, nearly three times larger than the U.S. industry average.


As PhRMA said in this article, these individuals go to work each day “in the face of continuous setbacks, 10- to 15-year development timelines, extensive R&D costs, and high rates of scientific and regulatory uncertainty.” (We would add that these individuals have watched as their industry has endured political attack after political attack even though sector workers pay $22.9 billion in local, state, and federal taxes each year—a figure that is about half of the National Institutes of Health’s total annual budget.)


In other words: biopharma workers are tough and they are resilient. They understand stops and starts, and trial and error—challenges we all will be forced to contend with as we contemplate how to safely “reopen” our economy.


Right now, though, the 800,000 Americans employed by the biopharma sector are focused on ending this pandemic—any way they can. Not only are they developing potential treatments and vaccines in record time, they and their employers are donating money and supplies, they are reconfiguring operations to ensure the country has the tools needed to prevent virus spread, and, importantly, many firms are hiring. 


Here are some stories.


Astellas in Illinois is encouraging its workers to donate money and is matching employee’s charitable contributions. So is AbbVie. Along with donating supplies to hospitals, Incyte in Delaware employees are supporting local food banks. The Alexion Charitable Foundation had donated a total of $500,000 across three nonprofit organizations, including the Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s COVID-19 Response Fund, the AmeriCares COVID-19 Response Fund, and the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund.


Working together, employees and companies in the Illinois biotechnology industry have sourced and donated more than 85,000 pieces of protective equipment and more than 5,000 supplies needed for COVID-19 diagnostic and testing. The Massachusetts Biotechnology Council is running a hub where any company or individual can donate supplies to supply hospitals and other health care institutions with much-needed supplies. AstraZeneca has donated 9 million face masks to support health care workers.


In Fortune, Ed Frauenheim from Great Place to Work reports AbbVie has given $35 million to help underserved communities and to “support the creation and operation of mobile field hospitals in the United States that will provide capacity and create improved patient flow options as hospitals work to keep COVID-19 patients separated from other patients.”


MaineBiz has featured the work of companies in the Pine Tree State, including:

- Puritan Medical Products in Guilford, whose workers are producing between 800,000 and one million swabs a week to be used in COVID-19 tests. The company is hiring 30 additional workers to help.

- The Baker Co. in Sanford is manufacturing biological safety cabinets for hospitals and public health laboratories. This company also is hiring.

- BBI Solutions in Portland produces diagnostic materials and services that can accelerate tests to market and aid in the collection, interpretation, and communication of test results.


With these efforts, and others, hopefully all Americans will be back to work soon.