Business

For Thermo Fisher, a swift shift to virus testing

Back in January, Thermo Fisher Scientific, the world’s largest maker of scientific tools, monitored the speedy sequencing in China of an unnamed coronavirus that would soon blaze around the world. Gearing up to produce diagnostic test kits and keep hospitals and labs supplied with the instruments to read them, the Waltham company raced to deliver 5 millions tests per week by mid-April, as did two other giants in biopharma, Roche and Abbott.

Now Thermo Fisher’s goal is 10 million per week. Shortages of supplies needed to make or interpret the tests have eased. Looking ahead to the fall, the company expects new arenas for its testing will create new demand. Businesses have begun to test — and retest — their returning employees. Schools, colleges, and universities plan to test their students and staffs. Even professional sports leagues want to repeatedly test athletes competing in events in which they can’t be socially distant.

Mark Stevenson, Thermo Fisher Scientific’s chief operating officer, talked with STAT about the different world the company is facing and how it’s adapting.. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

How has the company reacted to the fast-moving virus?

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It’s been different than our normal business, with much more engagement with governments, at the federal level or the state level. The initial part was about responding state by state in the US and trying to help them build capacity. A lot of this effort was about not sending symptomatic patients into the hospitals, trying not to overwhelm them. Typically, a governor’s office would set up a response team and that team would then typically set up some new labs where they didn’t have existing capacity. Ohio was one of those states where we helped them. They set out a target to do a million tests initially over a two-month period. We set up five sites with a target of 10 sites across the state, serving as a support team, training new operators, setting up to scale the testing. So we’ve really been building new infrastructure.

What’s different in different countries?

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Germany, for example, has strong commercial testing labs. The UK didn’t. So they decided to set up three brand-new labs with a goal to do 100,000 tests a day across what they called Lighthouse Labs. It was a bit of a heroic effort as the instruments were loaned from the universities. So we had the British army go in and pick up instruments from the universities and deliver them to the three sites. The army helped on the logistics, and then we supplied the materials. It was one of those semi-wartime efforts. Fortunately we were all on the same side in fighting the virus.

Belgium is another great example where three pharmaceutical companies stepped in. Typically they’re doing drug discovery and drug development, and they converted their labs to do Covid testing. One of the real pleasures out of the Covid has been seeing the close industry collaboration across governments, across companies like ourselves, across the pharmaceutical industry.

What’s changed since April?

There’s increasing demand in some countries in Latin America, and we’re working with some of the low- and middle-income countries in Africa where you can see the virus is still quite rampant.

What’s new now?

In places like the US, we’re seeing new testing modalities starting up. So that’s a new sort of aspect of testing for us. We’re in an interesting time for testing.

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We’ve been working with groups to validate alternative testing methods that are easier for employers to do. A lot of people are starting to look at moving away from this swab at the deep back of the throat or the back of the nose, which are very uncomfortable. For example, we worked with a lab at Rutgers in New Jersey to validate their saliva test. And also, you need a different sort of end-to-end work stream. Now you report results to your physician. How are you reporting back to the employer, or to the employee directly? We’re just beginning to launch those programs, working with groups who now have FDA approval. We have three or four modifications to our initial FDA emergency use approval.

What’s different in how you work with the FDA?

We had a very positive relationship with the FDA in discussing both what’s necessary to approve diagnostics and also areas coming down the R&D pipeline. You know, in the past, we might have discussed novel areas like gene therapy, but now we’re discussing how do we think about new types of swabs for sampling, how do we think about pooling samples?

And what about Thermo Fisher employees?

We’ve got some 75,000 colleagues globally, 30,000 here in the US. And so we’re starting with the high-risk population, our field service engineers out visiting biopharmaceutical customers, making sure they’re tested. And then some of our pharmaceutical manufacturing sites to make sure we test staff there.

We have temperature sensors, we keep social distancing, and we unfortunately had to close our canteens on-site. The administrative offices are beginning to come back.

What has happened to your traditional business selling to labs?

We’ve seen this sort of wave go across from January. We saw it in China. We saw it very directly in the everyday lab [supplies] and consumables that people use. We saw it as the European labs started to close in March and April, in the same way we started to see it in the US the biopharma companies have come back the quickest. The academic groups are beginning to come back and we’re beginning to see the European labs come back up.

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Sometimes it starts with them asking for a service engineer to come back in. It might start with supplies to restart experiments. You know, some experiments survive better than others. We definitely saw a slowdown in clinical trials, maybe because the hospitals were overwhelmed with Covid patients.

We’re just starting to see clinical trials begin to come back. But there was really quite a switch of research. People wanted to study everything from the structure of the virus to immune response. Then the pharmaceutical companies are looking at bioproduction materials for the new mRNA vaccines. And that goes all the way through our supply chain in our pharma manufacturing. The final stage is [filling] billions of glass vials with doses.

Are there changes that will always be with us?

Well, hopefully the value of science and the conversation that the world is having about understanding viruses, biology, and treatments. I think maybe we have a reappreciation of vaccines and preventive therapies. As I speak to some of the biopharma customers, I think people are going to be more likely to want to take vaccines going forward.

Elizabeth Cooney can be reached at elizabeth.cooney@statnews.com.