Utah’s biotech companies changed the course of the pandemic
Utah is home to more than 40 companies directly responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by way of diagnostic test manufacturing, serological test manufacturing, personal protective equipment (PPE), therapeutics, and other laboratories that are conducting various types of testing.
Wade Stevenson, VP of North American clinical marketing at BioFire Diagnostics, one of the life science leaders in Utah, says an important part of the story is that the current demand for BioFire’s testing product far exceeds the supply. While the company has been doing everything humanly possible to ramp up manufacturing and better meet demand, they’re still behind.
Currently, BioFire has over 300 roles they’re looking to fill in response to this demand, especially in manufacturing. “We are not meeting all the demand that we have–it’s been overwhelming. A big part of our response is hiring, hiring, hiring,” Stevenson says.
The race for more testing
Headquartered in Draper, the Spectrum campus includes Spectrum Solutions and its medical device and services division, Spectrum DNA. Before Spectrum, testing methods for the coronavirus required individuals to endure an invasive and uncomfortable swabbing of the throat and nasal cavity to gather a specimen.
“The prospect of weekly, and in many settings, daily testing, brought sharp opposition, not to mention increased risk of exposure for healthcare professionals and shortages of testing supplies,” says Bill Phillips, chief operating officer at Spectrum Solutions.
Pioneering an altogether new, pain-free alternative, Spectrum secured the first FDA EUA authorization for the use of saliva collected with their SNDA-1000 saliva collection device. “This incredible innovation additionally delivered the first FDA EUA authorization for at-home biosample collection and provides 100 percent in-device viral inactivation.”
The SDNA-1000 saliva collection device creates the most robust and safest biomaterial collection approach for the detection of COVID infections and leads the way to a new era of at-home biosample self-collection for the diagnosis of many viral infections, mitigating any risk of infection throughout the testing process, delivering over a 90 percent reduction in PPE usage compared to swabbing, saving both time and money.
Antibodies have become an important piece in the COVID puzzle and Utah companies such as Quansys BioScience, Predictive Laboratories, Recursion Pharmaceuticals, and NuView have been working to provide serological testing. This type of testing identifies the antibodies indicating someone has had COVID, but have developed immune factors needed to protect them.
Recursion Pharmaceuticals in Salt Lake City has been using robotics and artificial intelligence to discover pharmaceuticals at a lower cost. They’re also using AI for rapid testing of COVID treatments and therapeutics. Likewise, RenalytixAI is using artificial intelligence to develop diagnostic testing for COVID and its impacts on the renal system.
The hustle to make more PPE available
In addition to testing, Nelson Labs, LLC, located in Taylorsville, is one of a handful of laboratories authorized to certify masks and personal protective equipment.
According to company president, Jeffery R. Nelson, Nelson Labs tests virtually everything that can be found in the healthcare setting that could go in someone, on them, or around them to ensure it’s safe for healthcare providers and patients alike. The company helps ensure devices are biocompatible, clean or sterile, have safe packaging, and when needed, can be cleaned or reused. They also test face masks, respirators, and other protective equipment to make sure they function safely and adhere to industry standards.
Like BioFire, Nelson Labs’ high demand for personal protective equipment has been outpacing what could be manufactured in the short run, Nelson explains. And shortages of PPE have left hospitals and healthcare facilities with few options but to reuse equipment that was never intended to be reused.
Nelson Labs, along with its sister companies, Sterigenics, and Nordion, joined with industry leaders and government agencies to find ways for decontamination and sterilization of single-use PPE so it could be reused. As a result of the collaboration, Nelson Labs created a test plan that gives innovators trying to reprocess their PPE a way to validate their reprocessing solutions.
“This potentially allows many face masks, which were previously single-use, to be reprocessed and reused, increasing the total number of protective masks available to end-users,” Nelson says.
Kelvyn Cullimore, CEO of BioUtah also mentions that Utah companies like Sports Medicine Research and Testing Lab performs COVID testing for professional sports programs, including the National Football League, and the Major League Baseball, and Professional Golf Associations.
“When we think about the many challenges around the world created by this pandemic, we are honored to be playing an important role in supporting our customers in this fight against the coronavirus with the ongoing validation of PPE and other critical healthcare supplies,” says Cullimore.
Keeping Utah safe
Testing has been an important topic of conversation since the beginning of the pandemic and Soft Cell Bio in St. George is capable of running over 5,000 COVID tests per day. Then there’s ARUP Labs, a nationally recognized reference lab that performs thousands of tests daily for the State of Utah and the University of Utah Health Systems, among others.
According to Sherrie Perkins, MD, PhD and CEO of ARUP, the company also validated Utah’s first COVID antibody test to detect previous exposure to the virus. As of fall 2020, ARUP continues to perform a large percentage of Utah’s COVID testing along with other clinical laboratories in the state.
“In addition to COVID-specific testing, ARUP’s menu of more than 3,000 tests includes other assays useful in treating COVID. For example, the lab offers cytokine testing that identifies a serious hyperimmune reaction that affects some patients with COVID,” Perkins says.
Throughout the pandemic, ARUP collaborated with the University of Utah Health, Intermountain Healthcare, the Utah Department of Health, and other organizations in the state to find answers to critical scientific questions about COVID.
Through ARUP’s Clinical Trials team, the organization helped to evaluate COVID treatments. ARUP is presently collaborating with the Utah Department of Health on a study of SARS-CoV-2 genetics to understand how the virus has spread in Utah. They are also performing all testing for the Utah Health and Economic Recovery Outreach (HERO) project, to help keep Utahns safe at work and at school, said Perkins.
According to Cullimore, there are even Utah-based companies working right now on therapeutic responses that address the symptoms or the underlying disease itself, “Many of these companies have proprietary technologies that could be the solution that helps this nation and the world better cope with COVID, and help return our society to pre-COVID status.”