The coronavirus pandemic has recast how business is done for most Connecticut companies—especially in the state's flourishing bioscience sector.
Life changed dramatically at Sanofi Pasteur, part of the world's largest company devoted entirely to vaccines, says Clement Lewin, associate vice president of R&D strategy.
Lewin told a June 16 CBIA webinar that for the last four months, more than 100 Sanofi Pasteur scientists in Meriden and worldwide "have been consumed" with developing a vaccine.
Moderated by Connecticut Bioscience Growth Council executive director Paul Pescatello, the webinar featured Lewin; Charles Lee, scientific director at The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine; Carol Boedicker, vice president of human resources at HABCO industries; and HABCO president and CEO Brian Montanari.
Sanofi is working on several approaches that target an immune system response against the virus in an effort to develop a vaccine.
A vaccine mimics an infection without giving you the symptoms and your body produces an immune response.
"If you're infected again, the immune response kicks in and protects you from infection," Lewin said.
One of the reasons Sanofi researchers are encouraged, he added, is that nearly everyone who recovers from COVID-19 develops antibodies.
When the virus first arrived, the roughly 30 faculty members doing research at the Jackson Laboratory in Farmington began focusing on the biology of the virus to learn more about it, said Lee.
"Those of us working on genomics were interested, including in seeing how the virus moves about the country and how the virus alters its biology," he said.
"We're eager to learn everything we can and share it with scientists worldwide."
Lee said coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS emerge from animals, usually from bats to other species, then pass to humans.
"The difference here is you have something that transmits easily between humans and it's transmitted now globally and has become a pandemic," he said.
“Other differences are you have asymptomatic transmission so it's difficult to track.
"We don't necessarily know who's carrying it and who's transmitting it."
Operation Warp Speed
Pescatello said he expects a coronavirus vaccine to arrive faster than any vaccine in history.
Once it is developed, it will be ready for mass production, Lewin said, thanks to Operation Warp Speed, a federal public-private partnership designed to hasten the vaccine's manufacturing and distribution.
"They are manufacturing at risk—starting the manufacturing process as the vaccine is being developed," Lewin said.
But given the pandemic's cost to the economy, he said, the government wants to be ready for production.
Since the pandemic began, Glastonbury-based HABCO Industries has been a leader among Connecticut manufacturers in taking extra steps to protect the workplace.
It was among the first to take employees' temperatures and administer on-site COVID-19 tests.
"We had been doing temperature checks since the beginning of March,” said Boedicker. "COVID tests just added another level for us."
"To say the last three-and-a-half months have been a challenge would be an understatement," added Montanari.
"The health and safety of our employees, suppliers, and customers became our top priority."
HABCO sent all non-essential workers home, then split into two shifts to encourage social distancing, working with any employee who had scheduling challenges.
"It has made a difference in safety and maintaining production," Boedicker said.
Lewin said he's hopeful lessons are learned.
"We are now acutely aware of the impact of the pandemic and may be more willing to invest in pandemic preparedness," he said.
"I think we're going to be a lot better prepared for the next wave of the pandemic," including stockpiling personal protective equipment and testing supplies, Lee added.
Montanari, who communicates daily with his staff via videos posted to the company's YouTube channel, said he's considering a temperature-taking kiosk and an air-monitoring system for his facility.
Some things may never go back to normal, he said, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
"There are some things I don’t ever want to change and go back to," he said, noting increased productivity from fewer meetings.
"But the unknown is still too great. We've got a long time before we can say we're back to normal."
For more information, contact the Connecticut Bioscience Growth Council's Paul Pescatello (860.244.1938) | @CTBio