RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – The White House is closely reviewing North Carolina’s COVID response to glean “best practice” for pandemic preparedness going forward.

The Biden Administration sent a high-level team from the federal Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to get a firsthand look at the state’s response system, including its biomanufacturing capabilities, workforce development and community outreach programs.

The aim, they said, was to better understand how small life sciences companies, especially those headquartered in the state’s Research Triangle, pivoted to support efforts to combat the pandemic. They also wanted to identify additional ways the federal government could accelerate innovation as it looks ahead to fight future pandemics.

“We need to do much better as a nation, and North Carolina is demonstrating this as a best practice,” Matthew Hepburn, M.D., the White House senior advisor for pandemic preparedness, told local officials gathered at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center last Friday.

Matthew Hepburn, M.D., leads discussion at NCBiotech. (NCBiotech photo)

“North Carolina has prioritized bringing all its assets together to manufacture products and create a workforce to develop those lifesaving products. We’ve needed them for COVID, and we’re going to need them for other things.”

The visit is also another sign of the state’s rising status as a global life sciences leader.

Just last month, officials from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) appeared in person at Novo Nordisk Pharmaceutical in Clayton. It was part of a whistle-stop “learning tour” for its “Build Back Better Regional Challenge.”

A statewide coalition of public and private partner organizations, led by NC Biotech, is among 60 finalists vying for up to $75 million in funding aimed at boosting the region’s life sciences manufacturing, while supporting North Carolina’s most distressed communities.

While the two visits are unrelated, it shows a growing interest in what the region has to offer, said Sara Imhof, Ph.D., NC Biotech’s senior director of precision health.

“OSTP’s interest in North Carolina stems from how we proactively create productive public-private partnerships that enhance how we seek and find novel solutions,” she said. “We look forward to further opportunities to share with them successful models that can inform efforts across the nation and help advance OSTP priorities.”

The two-day visit included a meeting with the state Health Secretary Kody Kinsley, a tour of First Flight Venture Center and breakout sessions with key players in the region’s life sciences ecosystem. That included the North Carolina Life Sciences Innovation Coalition, a group comprised of NCBiotech, NC State, Wake Forest and Duke Universities, among others, creating novel vaccines, antiviral medications, and diagnostics.

“There’s a real need in our nation to be able to manufacture biomedical products domestically, especially essential medicines,” Hepburn said. “Our fundamental goal is enabling ecosystems like North Carolina to do what they do.”

Rising status

Today, North Carolina’s life sciences manufacturing cluster boasts 136 companies that employ nearly 32,000 North Carolinians. Since the beginning of 2020, leading life sciences companies including Eli LillyFUJIFILM Diosynth BiotechnologiesAmgen, Astellas Gene Therapies, Grifols, Novo Nordisk, Thermo Fisher Scientific, Biogen, Merck, and others have expanded life sciences manufacturing operations in North Carolina, announcing investments of over $7 billion and the potential to create more than 7,000 new jobs.

Additionally, there are another 28 life sciences manufacturing companies actively considering North Carolina for growth, with the potential to add up to another $3.5 billion in investment and 5,500 new jobs on the horizon, NCBiotech’s senior vice president for economic development and statewide operations William Bullock wrote in a March LinkedIn post.

In addition to manufacturing, Hepburn cited another area where the region excels: workforce development.

He highlighted programs such as NCBiotech’s Military Outreach and Veterans Engagement (MOVE) initiative. It helps active military personnel transition into careers in biopharmaceutical manufacturing.

Duke Human Vaccine Institute’s partnership with the North Carolina Central University Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise (NCCU BRITE) also received special mention. It’s working to recruit students from minority and underrepresented backgrounds into research, biomanufacturing, clinical coordination, and project management positions.

Outside of the Triangle, East Carolina University’s Eastern Region Pharma Center Rural Expansion’s (ECU-ERPC) program is aimed at training educators to prepare rural underserved students for the pharmaceutical industry.

“We’ve been just astounded by what we’ve heard,” Hepburn said.

Still, these programs require external funding. (Both NCCU BRITE and ECU-ERPC are listed as part of the NCBiotech coalition’s “Build Back Better Challenge” application.)

Hepburn acknowledged this point and promised to do what he can. The OSTP advises the executive branch on new potential programs that are needed by small businesses to create success.

To that end, the OSTP team invited two representatives from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), a unit of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, as part of this tour. Its venture group has played a critical role in funding pandemic diagnostics and therapeutics.

“We’re going to follow up,” he told local officials. “We can package those in a one-pager and circulate those as policy documents. We can hold future conversations and dialogue to connect,” he said. “People need to hear the story of NCBiotech, and what the state is doing.”

(C) N.C. Biotech Center