• Jon Santiago

Life sciences manufacturing can be an economic lifeline

The state must seize the opportunity to lead

ALREADY, THE ECONOMIC damage done to Massachusetts by the COVID-19 recession is rivaling the Great Depression. Unemployment rates and tax revenue shortfalls are expected to be three times worse than the Great Recession. More workers filed unemployment claims in the first three weeks of the current lockdown than in all of the 2008 economic downturn.

Despite this sobering reality, there is a bright spot. The state’s life sciences sector remains a significant employer and, quite literally, a lifesaver. In addition to partnering with government to scale up testing and acquisition of PPE, at least 70 local companies are currently working on COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines.

Through the life sciences sector, Massachusetts can create not only treatments for this pandemic, but also jobs in this recession. To build on the Commonwealth’s strength in research and development, life sciences manufacturing is the logical next step. It has the potential to put thousands of residents back to work, while reducing our dependence on foreign supply chains for medicine.

Today, about 80 percent of the basic components used in US drugs come from India and China. The FDA has repeatedly raised questions regarding the quality of Indian manufacturing facilities. Chinese plants are better, but our dependence on their drug supply is a risk given today’s geopolitical environment.

If we don’t seize the manufacturing opportunity, others will. Competitors like the North Carolina Research Triangle, Philadelphia, and Singapore are moving forward as specialized manufacturing hubs. These cell-and-gene-therapy plants rely on research that Massachusetts is pioneering. And we have the talent to pioneer production, too.

Three opportunities stand out as job creators:

Specialized manufacturing for cell-and-gene therapies. Demand for this type of manufacturing outpaces supply by an order of magnitude. Greater Boston biotechs face a years-long wait to get their products manufactured. These companies will be ready customers for local manufacturers, which create great jobs without the requirement of an advanced degree. For example, right now a $1.1 billion facility outside Philadelphia is gearing up to employ 2,000 people, with an average salary in the six figures.

Continuous manufacturing for small-molecule drugs and sterile injectables. These plants run on MIT technology that produces pills faster, cheaper, and with higher quality. Millions of Americans who take generic drugs for common diseases like diabetes could benefit from lower prices if this technology were expanded. Continuus Pharmaceuticals already has a plant in Woburn, and they’re hiring.

Antibiotic manufacturing. Boston University’s accelerator funds drug discovery to treat antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which kill 35,000 Americans a year. Two novel classes of antibiotics were just discovered here. Manufacturing them should happen here, too.

These three areas are just a starting point. Consider the Waters Corporation, which recently opened a plant in Taunton. It’s a medical supplier, not a drug manufacturer. But, like Continuus, it’s an example of how life sciences manufacturing can create jobs throughout the state.

To kickstart employment, the federal government should offer tax credits for capital expenditure and priority review vouchers for specialized manufacturers. It should pledge to be a first customer for continuous manufacturers making drugs for which there are chronic shortages. And Congress should update the GAIN Act to offer post-approval bridge funding for antibiotic companies that manufacture locally.

State and local governments can work together to pre-permit sites and improve their utility connections and transportation access. The Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute can serve as a template for how to convene educators, unions, and industry to train a talent pipeline. A government initiative similar to the one that strengthened the life sciences sector in 2008 should be considered. That worked, and it proved that government and industry could capitalize on opportunity in the midst of recession.

Critics may protest that the government shouldn’t pick winners through tax breaks. We agree. These efforts are not simply about investing in individual companies. It’s about doubling down on the Commonwealth’s strength in the life sciences.

Our highly educated and uniquely skilled workforce will provide for the necessary PhD-level scientists, technicians, inventory and quality control personnel, and shipping and receiving workers. That talent is abundant in Massachusetts and the jobs could be, too. Life sciences manufacturing can help lead us back to prosperity.

Jon Santiago is a state representative in Boston and an emergency room physician at Boston Medical Center. Jake Auchincloss is a Newton city councilor and a Democratic candidate for Congress in the Fourth District.

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