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Vermont Company BioTek is at Forefront of Search for Vaccine Against Coronavirus

Monday, March 30, 2020   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jeff Couture

A Vermont company is playing a vital role in the urgent effort to test for the coronavirus and create a vaccine that will be effective against this new virus that has killed thousands of people, and plunged the world into economic turmoil.

BioTek, based in Winooski, makes scientific instruments and software analysis tools that accelerate and facilitate testing for the virus. BioTek instruments are also being used in the search for a vaccine to fight the virus.

Briar Alpert, the former owner and CEO of BioTek, said Monday he was watching the CBS News program 60 Minutes on Sunday when he saw a BioTek instrument in the background during an interview with Kate Broderick, senior vice president of research and development at Inovio Pharmaceuticals in San Diego.

Inovio is working on a vaccine against the virus, and hopes to begin human trials next month.

Alpert sold BioTek to California-based Agilent in July 2019 for about $1.2 billion, joining a rare club of Vermont companies to command 10-figure prices. He agreed to continue working for six months to help with the transition, and retired just weeks ago.

The new coronavirus causes COVID-19 which first appeared in late 2019 in Wuhan, China.

Symptoms of COVID-19 can include fever, cough and breathing trouble. Most develop only mild symptoms. But some people, usually those with other medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia, which can be fatal.

This past Saturday, BioTek was approached by one of the largest commercial labs in the country, asking if the company could provide 80 to 160 instruments within one week, according to Peter Weith, vice president of marketing, sales and service.

"These units were to be deployed nationally — entirely focused on local testing for COVID-19," Weith said in an email. "We responded within hours and began planning on how we could change our manufacturing lines to support this request."

The company had developed a plan by Sunday night, Weith said, and expected to finish the first batch of instruments early this week.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta contacted BioTek on Monday to request a range of products for a lab studying COVID-19.

Agilent has about 2,000 employees in China, who have been involved in the efforts to fight the coronavirus there. Weith said the China office was able to purchase about 2,000 medical grade masks from a Chinese supplier and ship them to Winooski, where BioTek's field staff in North America will use them to continue their work in research labs and hospitals around the country.

"This coronavirus can be transmitted so easily to our field staff that we didn't want to send them into the field unless they had safe masks," Weith said.

Weith said many of BioTek's sales and service people are scientists who are able to help labs and hospitals work through problems they encounter in their research, including the search for a vaccine for the coronavirus.

The willingness of the Chinese supplier to sell masks for BioTek's use in the United States is reflective of China's desire to ease the tension between the two countries over the outbreak of the coronavirus, according to Weith.

"China proactively did this because they wanted to help their colleagues in the United States," Weith said.

Alpert explained the current test for the coronavirus involves taking a swab of a person's nose, which is used to detect the presence of coronavirus RNA. The RNA is extracted and "amplified" for identification.

"Our instruments are used in part of that RNA extraction and concentration process," Alpert said.

The next step is a blood test that will check for antibodies to the virus, Alpert said, which will be useful in developing therapies to fight the virus, and aid in understanding the size and scope of the pandemic.

"That test doesn't exist yet, but would be run directly on our instruments," Alpert said.

Responding to the requirement for social distancing, the two manufacturing shifts at BioTek are split into groups of about 50 people each. Workers on the first shift start at 3 a.m. and work until noon. The manufacturing floor then shuts down for about 45 minutes while a cleaning crew comes in. The second shift starts at 1 p.m. and works until 8 p.m.

Source: Burlington Free Press