Coronavirus update: The bioeconomy responds to the crisis

16. March 2020
Posted in Syndicated
16. March 2020 ecokontor

Coronavirus update: The bioeconomy responds to the crisis

First and foremost, we want to communicate that ABLC 2020 has been postponed until July 8-10, after the Mayor of Washington DC issued a health & safety advisory that we felt obliged to follow, although the advisory warned against the holding of events with 1,000 delegates or more, and ABLC audience is not quite that big, we believed that the spirit of the advisory was the important thing.

Over the weekend, the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommended the cancellation of every event with 50 or more attendees for the next 8 weeks, confirming that postponement was the right decision. So, we’ll be in Washington DC in July for “networking like crazy” after we all have taken a pause in the US and elsewhere to hunker down in isolation as the world fights the coronavirus pandemic and the COVID-19 disease that the virus brings. 

Hunkering down around the industry

And hunker down the world has. Harsh shutdowns and voluntary closures of events, restaurants, concerts, theaters, sporting events. 

Crop Enhancement CEO Kevin Chen emailed from California that “more cases have popped up here in Silicon Valley and more and more employers and schools are taking action and asking employees to work from home or canceling in-person classes.  Our company has asked employees who can work remotely and are uncomfortable working in the office to go ahead and work from home to help mitigate the spread of the virus.”

BASF VP Markus Pompejus added that “in the current COVID-19 situation, all my internal and business meetings in the US in March have been cancelled.” Meanwhile, the Biomass Board Technical Advisory Committee (“The TAC”), was forced to cancel its March 24-25 quarterly meeting in DC.

Gevo’s Heather Manuel at one point added, “We have had three conferences canceled or postponed in the last few hours.” And at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a Digesterati advised that “The guidance we have received from management at NREL is to avoid travel unless it is ‘client-required or is absolutely necessary for critical project deliverables and there are no other options for meeting those deliverables other than in person’.

Last Wednesday afternoon, the University of Tennessee and Gulfstream canceled all travel indefinitely, and Pivot Bio had “taken measures to restrict travel and participation in large events due to the current concern and uncertainty surrounding the Coronavirus Covid-19.” On Wednesday night, US President Donald Trump banned all air travel from the EU to the United States.  Later that night, POET announced a policy restricting travel.

On Thursday, news arrived that Idaho National Laboratory had definitely issued a travel ban on nonessential business travel because of COVID-19, and word has been circulated that travel has been restricted at all US national labs as of the weekend. Meanwhile, Honeywell UOP issued a travel ban “except for business critical purposes” and DSM also had instituted “strict travel policies and also avoidance of attending large gatherings” by Thursday as well.

On Friday, the American Coalition for Ethanol reported that it’s annual Washington, D.C. Fly-in and Government Affairs Summit scheduled for April 2-3, 2020 has been canceled due to the number of congressional offices declining meeting requests in response to concerns about the rapid spread of COVID-19. Many congressional offices had notified ACE they are not scheduling “any in-person meetings for the foreseeable future due to precautions surrounding coronavirus.”

Countless other organizations are also reportedly impacted in similar ways. In short, it’s almost a complete cessation of movement by bioeconomy companies at this time, and for the immediate future. Almost.

The good news, such as there is on shut-downs and restarts, comes from China. Xebec Adsorptions’s manufacturing operations in Shanghai, China were previously affected by COVID-19 and were shut down for three additional weeks after the normal two-week Chinese New Year holiday. The facility has since restarted and is now fully operational. Over this period, the rest of the operations were working remotely to continue progress on designs of various customer contracts. The company said that Xebec Shanghai may experience a moderate impact on Q1/20 revenues and earnings but “does not expect a material impact on full-year 2020.”

Putting it in perspective

It’s the most dramatic shutdown of society since the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918-19. It was almost exactly this time of year back then, on April 1st, 1919, that the Stanley Cup hockey championship was cancelled, mid-series, when five Montreal Canadien players fell ill — two players eventually succumbing fatally to the epidemic.

Then as now, theaters shuttered, sports halted, business plummeted, and the resulting social and economic disruption did much to undo the effort to launch the League of Nations and helped to hasten the outbreak of the Second World War. Future US President Herbert Hoover, then heading food relief efforts for Europe as it faced post-war starvation, wrote:

“Then came the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse – Pestilence…the pestilence had begun to move westward like a prairie fire. The people were trying to flee before it. Finally, I concluded we would have to take it on.”

As was then, is now. The Coronavirus crisis is upon us and the bioeconomy is right in the middle of it, in three important ways.

First, the general disruption of business impacts small, innovative, fast-growing businesses more than well-capitalized behemoths that tap credit lines to ride the storm. Second, there are biotechnologies at the very spear-point of the effort to develop tests, vaccines and treatments. Third, industrial biotechnology will be tapped for the mass manufacturing of the organisms that are developed and deployed.

Testing

In Wisconsin, Promega Corporation and Utah-based Co-Diagnostics, Inc. partnered in the rapid development and launch of the new Logix Smart COVID-19 Test. Co-Diagnostics’s coronavirus test received CE mark approval and is now available in Europe as an in vitro diagnostic (IVD). The news came roughly one month after Co-Diagnostics first began work on a test to detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The Logix Smart COVID-19 Test uses Co-Diagnostics’ CoPrimer technology to detect the presence of ribonucleic acid (RNA) produced by the novel strain of coronavirus. The real-time RT-PCR kit targets conserved regions in the genome. More on that story here. 

Meanwhile, the US Food & Drug Administration has been working at what could be regarded as light-speed for a Washington DC agency. On Friday, the FDA  issued the fourth COVID-19 diagnostic Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to Thermo Fisher for its TaqPath COVID-19 Combo Kit. The FDA issued an EUA to Thermo Fisher for its diagnostic test within 24 hours of receiving the request. This is the second commercially distributed test to receive an EUA during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“This action today shows our agency’s dedication to working around the clock to review and authorize diagnostics during this public health emergency,” said FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn, M.D. “More than 30 laboratories have notified us they are testing or intend to begin testing soon under our new policy for laboratory-developed tests for this emergency. The number of products in the pipeline reflects the significant role diagnostics play in this outbreak and the large number of organizations we are working with to bring tests to market.”

Vaccine

CureVac AG, a clinical stage biopharmaceutical company pioneering mRNA-based drugs for vaccines and therapeutics, confirmed over the weekend that internal efforts are focused on the development of a coronavirus vaccine with the goal to reach, help and to protect people and patients worldwide. As a consequence, the company is in contact with especially CEPI and many other organizations and authorities worldwide, however abstains from commenting on speculations and rejects allegations about offers for acquisition of the company or its technology.

What’s with that last comment?

An explosive report appeared over the weekend that the US Government offered funds to CureVac in its efforts to develop a vaccine, on the reported condition that the vaccine would be “exclusively for the benefit of American patients”. The Australian newspaper noted that “The newspaper Welt Am Sonntag broke the story on Sunday and the report was then confirmed by the German Health Ministry.” So there you have it, Germany’s backing the story, while CureVac itself is denying reports about acquisition of the technology, but neglected to deny the reports of funding offers. Hmm, we wonder.

CureVac sees mRNA as one of the most potent molecules to provide fast and efficient solutions in outbreak scenarios, such like the Coronavirus. Meanwhile, here’s some background on “messenger RNA” known in the trade as mRNA.

Treatment

In California, Vir Biotechnology signed a letter of intent with Biogenfor the development and clinical manufacturing of human monoclonal antibodies for the potential treatment of COVID-19, the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. That’s the formal name for the coronavirus (worth noting that there are several corona viruses — in fact, about 25 percent of “common colds” are caused by a different and less-lethal strain.)

Because of the urgency of the situation, the companies have begun work while a Clinical Development and Manufacturing Agreement is being negotiated. Subject to the completion of a definitive agreement, Biogen would continue cell line development, process development, and clinical manufacturing activities in order to advance the development of Vir’s proprietary antibodies. Vir has identified a number of monoclonal antibodies that bind to SARS-CoV-2, which were isolated from individuals who had survived a SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) infection. The company is conducting research to determine if its antibodies, or additional antibodies that it may be able to identify, can be effective as treatment and/or prophylaxis against SARS-CoV-2.

Tools

Last week we reported that Twist Bioscience  announced the availability of two synthetic SARS-CoV-2 RNA Controls. Positive controls provide quality control measures for the development, verification, and validation for diagnostic tests including both next-generation sequencing (NGS) and reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) assays; determination of the limit of detection; and monitoring of day-to-day test variations.

This week, Twist announced the availability of an NGS target enrichment panel that can test for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. These panels can be used for environmental monitoring and surveillance testing as well as tracking viral evolution and strain origin. While not a point-of-care diagnostic, this type of panel is exceptionally useful in the longer-term study and monitoring of the disease, as well as informing the public health implications.

Using its silicon-based DNA synthesis platform, Twist’s newest target enrichment panel in (three reaction sizes) facilitates various workflows, with synthetic double-stranded DNA probes covering the entire length of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Financial resiliency 

In the UK, the major food chain Morrisons pledged that farmers, local foodmakers and many more small businesses will be paid early to support them as they deal with the impact of coronavirus.

Morrisons is to move to immediate payments  for its smaller suppliers to help them during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The faster payments will support their cashflow during a difficult time for the British economy. Morrisons is also temporarily re-classifying a smaller supplier from those with £100,000 of business-a-year with the company to those with £1 million of business. This will mean that an extra 1,000 small food businesses will qualify for these new payment terms.

The move will help businesses that provide up to £1m of turnover with Morrisons, including suppliers of local food and farmers that deal direct with Morrisons, such as those providing eggs and livestock. Morrisons has around 3,000 small suppliers including 1,750 farmers that will benefit.

The latest from the CDC: What you need to know as an individual. 

The latest on symptoms, how to protect yourself and special guidance for older adults and medical conditions — the CDC’s page is the authoritative one, and that’s here.

The inconsistent response

We have to note that around the world we continue to see an inconsistency in response, and some real oddities.

The US cruise industry, it was said, would be shutting down as of Friday, but we can report that cruise ships were sailing from Miami on Sunday afternoon. France shuttered all “non-essential” shops, but let tobacconists stay open. New York and Los Angeles shuttered restaurants, bars, theaters, but fivethirtyeight’s Kaleigh Rogers reported last night that “the bars this weekend, if social media is any indication, were packed.”

Australia’s biggest casinos shut down every other slot machine in some kind of weird nod to social distancing, and remained open, while Australian restaurants and pubs with a capacity of more than 500 persons were advised to close. 27 US states have closed schools, but not the other 23. The US government declared a national emergency to unlock access to federal disaster relief, among other things, but applications for disaster relief still do not offer coronavirus as a valid response.

Are we doing enough? Opinions differ. A poll by the Economist and YouGov (surveys conducted March 8-10) found that 81 percent of Republican voters believe the United States is prepared for coronavirus. However, only 30% of Democrats feel the same level of preparedness. The latest poll by the same group, highlighted below, shows sharp differences by political affiliation in terms of “experiencing coronavirus”.

We’ll continue to track the response in our Digest coverage throughout the week.