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Emergent BioSolutions CEO: ‘Confrontational’ coverage of vaccine maker puts a target on ‘people doing good’ | COMMENTARY

Manufacturing associates work on a COVID-19 vaccine in one of four flexible manufacturing suites at Emergent BioSolutions' Bayview facility. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)
Manufacturing associates work on a COVID-19 vaccine in one of four flexible manufacturing suites at Emergent BioSolutions' Bayview facility. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun) (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

As the CEO of a 2,000-plus person Maryland-based company involved in the COVID-19 response, I have a high tolerance for the obligations that come with it — like spending endless hours trying to explain complicated manufacturing processes to reporters who just learned we existed. Or battling back the misinformation that is used to find fault with the people who are the spine of our nation’s world-leading response to this pandemic.

But it pains me to watch how this negative attention affects our workforce. We talk about front line health care workers a lot, as we should. They are extraordinary, and we could not have done this without them this past year. But so are the men and women who sacrificed their personal lives to spend the past year developing and manufacturing the vaccines that will bring this terrible chapter to a close. That includes our Baltimore-area workforce at Emergent, to whom I will be forever indebted.

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Emergent has been in the news a lot lately, and that’s frankly not something we’re used to. Until a year ago we were a little-known company that does our work behind the scenes. COVID-19 changed all that overnight. We help our nation prepare and respond to global calamities, like the opioid epidemic or a biological attack or fighting COVID-19.

For the first few months, it was welcome because our employees were getting recognition I thought was warranted given our company’s impressive track record. But people in our country, or at least some in our media, tend to put a target on the backs of people doing good. So, the attention grew confrontational.

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We received questions on our past work with the national stockpile. Reporters wondered why we would suggest the national stockpile include vaccines and treatments to defend against biological attacks when the stockpile was underprepared for a pandemic. Our response was that we think we should be prepared for both. The stockpile should do many things, because the point of its existence is much like the point of our company’s: to prepare for tragedies that nobody else is preparing for. But that’s not how it was framed.

Then it was questioned why our company lobbies the government. Putting aside that our participation in the conversation was no different from nearly every other company in America, the more important question is whether you, the American public, think that America was adequately prepared for public health threats like COVID-19. If your answer is no, then you’re on the same side we’re on. We lobby the government about helping the country prepare for events that only a small group of public health experts are thinking about. We don’t favor a party or administration. We try to educate both equally, and we’ve worked extremely well with both sides.

Because we have risen to more prominence over the past year, some believe we’re tied to the Trump administration. We did work extremely well with the Operation Warp Speed team, but we also worked well with the Obama-Biden team. Our Bayview facility in Baltimore exists and is now ready to produce 1 billion vaccines a year to fight COVID-19 precisely because of the collaboration with the Obama White House following the H1N1 pandemic. No other company can say that. We will, and we must, work with every administration because pandemics, attacks and epidemics aren’t red or blue by nature.

So far, our collaboration with President Biden and his team has been exceptional. We share the same goal of getting the highest number of vaccine doses safely manufactured in the shortest amount of time and then administered to the highest amount of people.

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We recently had a setback that was not something we ever like to see. During our rigorous quality control process, we found a batch of Johnson & Johnson vaccines that did not meet specification. In typical pharmaceutical manufacturing, this does occasionally happen. However, I recognize in a world where every dose is critical, this feels catastrophic.

There’s also an attack on our quality systems and how they are regulated. The FDA demands continuous improvements of all pharmaceutical manufacturers, and this makes our country’s drug manufacturing systems the best in the world. We’re no exception. The FDA has been tracking our progress every step of the way as we have ramped up COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing with unprecedented speed.

Working well together and being on target to deliver a high-quality miracle doesn’t seem to be newsworthy, but I think it is. A lot of people worked incredibly hard to make sure we are spending this year’s Fourth of July together rather than waiting for 2022. We have moved at a speed previously unknown and with amazing results. Knowing our team, I wouldn’t have said it was impossible a year ago, but I also would’ve acknowledged it’s an enormous challenge.

Our Emergent team is strong. Our private-public partnerships and collaborations are strong. Heck, our competitors are strong. Marylanders can be proud of Emergent and the role our employees have played in helping end this pandemic. We have an incredible public health infrastructure in this country, and we should stop to appreciate it before trying to tear it down.

Robert Kramer (ceo@ebsi.com) is president and chief executive officer of Emergent BioSolutions.

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