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Massachusetts life-sciences industry at forefront of worldwide fight against coronavirus

Companies like Alnylam, Moderna, and Thermo Fisher are mobilizing

Thermo Fisher Scientific's headquarters in Waltham.
Thermo Fisher Scientific's headquarters in Waltham.Suzanne Kreiter

As Massachusetts braces for a surge of patients infected with the coronavirus, the state is playing an outsize role in the global fight against the pandemic.

Companies in the state are scrambling to develop and distribute potential vaccines, drugs, and diagnostic tests. Researchers at Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other schools are studying everything from genetic resistance to the virus to whether better face masks can be designed to protect people.

That’s to say nothing of doctors at Boston’s renowned teaching hospitals and local public health experts who are ubiquitous in news coverage of the crisis — and who are gearing up for the front lines.

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“This is exactly what you’d expect to happen,” said John Maraganore, chief executive of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, which is collaborating with a California biotech to develop gene-silencing drugs to treat COVID-19. “The industry in Massachusetts is going to the mat to fight this thing.”

The world hasn’t seen a public health threat like this since the Spanish flu killed millions around the world starting in 1918, Maraganore said. “The difference," he said, "is we’re technologically and scientifically better prepared to fight it.”

For years, the life-sciences sector in Cambridge, Boston, and nearby communities has ranked at or near the top of the nation’s hubs working on new medicines and technologies. Biopharma jobs in the state grew by a remarkable 35 percent from 2009 to 2018 and now total more than 74,000, according to a report in August by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, a trade group.

Research and development is particularly robust. Massachusetts had 39,365 such jobs in biotech in 2018, lagging behind only California, which had 44,751, the report said. California has a population almost six times that of Massachusetts.

Money has poured into drug development as employment has soared. Investment in biopharma in Massachusetts reached an all-time high in 2018, with $4.8 billion of venture capital invested in local companies, according to the MassBio report.

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The battle against coronavirus has only underscored the state’s prominence in the life sciences, and the role its institutions will play in the coming months. Among the key efforts:

Vaccines: There’s no vaccine yet for COVID-19, but the World Health Organization lists more than 40 vaccine candidates around the globe. The first to be tested was jointly developed by Moderna, of Cambridge, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health.

On Monday, healthy volunteers began receiving doses of the vaccine, which relies on custom-built messenger RNA to produce an immune response, for a clinical trial in Seattle. The first phase of the trial, at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute, is scheduled to run about six weeks, but experts say it will probably take at least a year before a vaccine made by any company could be deployed.

“We believe that there’s a good possibility of the vaccine working, but, of course, we have to wait for the data from the NIH,” Moderna’s CEO, Stephane Bancel, told the Globe recently.

Another potential vaccine with roots in Massachusetts is a collaboration between Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and the drug-making arm of Johnson & Johnson, which is based in New Brunswick, N.J.

Dr. Dan Barouch, head of Beth Israel’s Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, and Janssen Pharmaceutical Cos. are using a common cold virus to deliver a tiny part of the coronavirus protein into cells to stimulate the immune system. Barouch’s lab is testing multiple versions of the vaccine on mice, ferrets, and rhesus monkeys, and he hopes to begin testing it on healthy people in the fall.

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“Clearly, the epidemic is expanding in the US, as we and many others had predicted,” Barouch said Wednesday. “I believe it’s going to get worse before it gets better. And it’s possible that a vaccine may be required to end the epidemic.”

Like Moderna, the German biotech CureVac, with about 20 employees in Boston, is also working on a potential messenger RNA vaccine. It says it hopes to begin clinical trials in early summer. Those efforts have been marred by a dispute, reported Sunday, over alleged attempts by the Trump administration to gain exclusive access to the vaccine. CureVac on Tuesday denied it had received US offers for the company or its assets.

Diagnostic tests: One of the biggest hurdles in the US response to the epidemic has been a severe shortage of diagnostic test kits. Since Friday, the Food and Drug Administration has approved emergency orders for three companies to provide high-speed diagnostic tests. Two of them are based in Massachusetts.

Hologic, of Marlborough, said Monday that it got permission to sell labs coronavirus test kits that can provide results in less than three hours. The product can test up to 1,150 patients in a 24-hour period and can diagnose coronavirus, seasonal flu, and other diseases simultaneously.

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“When patients go to their physicians right now, they often have very similar symptoms for coronavirus and the flu, and they want to determine what it is,” said Kevin Thornal, president of Hologic’s diagnostics division.

Hologic, which developed the tests with funding from the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, expects to provide laboratory customers with tens of thousands of the tests this month as it ramps up production. Starting in April, Hologic hopes to produce nearly 600,000 tests a month. Hologic has about 6,300 employees worldwide, including about 1,000 in Massachusetts.

On Friday Thermo Fisher Scientific, the Waltham laboratory equipment company, got emergency FDA approval to supply coronavirus test kits to hospitals and laboratories. The tests will be able to diagnose the virus and provide results four hours after a lab gets a sample. By April, Thermo Fisher plans to make as many as 5 million tests a week, according to the company, which has begun shipping them to about 200 labs across the country.

Meanwhile, Sherlock Biosciences in Cambridge has developed a test for laboratory use and is working on another that people could use at home, like a pregnancy test, to diagnose coronavirus.

Drugs: There are no approved medicines to treat the novel coronavirus, but several Massachusetts companies are racing to get the first one to market.

The Japanese drug maker Takeda Pharmaceutical, which has its US headquarters and research-and-development facilities in Cambridge, is trying to create a medicine from the plasma of people who developed immunity to the virus because they recovered from COVID-19 or received a yet-to-be approved vaccine for it.

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The drug would be geared to high-risk individuals with the disease, including the elderly and people with underlying health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, or lung disease. Takeda is the biggest drug maker by headcount in Massachusetts, with roughly 5,000 local employees.

Alnylam, headed by Maraganore, is collaborating with Vir Biotechnology of San Francisco on RNA interference drugs to treat the disease.

Biogen, whose Cambridge headquarters is a short walk from Alnylam, is also collaborating with Vir. Biogen and Vir signed a letter of intent to develop and manufacture therapeutic antibodies as a potential coronavirus treatment. Because of the urgency of the health crisis, they announced the collaboration before an agreement was signed.

Employees at Biogen know all too well how contagious COVID-19 is. The biotech, whose 2,400 staffers make it the biggest Massachusetts-based drug maker, hosted a late February upper-management meeting at the Marriott Long Wharf that has been linked to 97 cases of the disease. This week, Biogen announced it’s donating $10 million to combat the pandemic.

Another area of local leadership: All the Massachusetts researchers who are explaining the health crisis to the public and calling for swifter action.

For at least a month, Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has been raising alarms about coronavirus in media outlets around the world, projecting that half or more of the global population would eventually be infected.

“There are going to be millions of people dying,” he grimly told CBS News on March 2, “and I don’t think there’s any way to get around that.” Lipsitch says he gets more than 100 requests a day for interviews.

Dr. Ashish Jha, director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute, has also been in the forefront. On Tuesday, he called for a national quarantine on MSNBC’s Morning Joe show. “If we overreact we’re going to waste some money,” Jha said. “If we under-react we’re going to count our losses in lives and money.”

Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, an infectious disease specialist at Boston University and Boston Medical Center, has also been prominent. She recently appeared on NPR’s “Short Wave,” discussing quarantines and why it’s so hard to stop the new disease. She was herself quarantined twice after returning home from Sierra Leone after the Ebola outbreak there in 2014.

“I think quarantining is always a balance between taking away an individual’s freedom versus the potential benefits that you might get from taking such a sort of step,” she said.










Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jonathan.saltzman@globe.com. Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer.