As the nation continues to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has triggered an arms-race effort to develop vaccines and testing kits for hundreds of millions of people.
Hollister-based Teknova has a key role in the global competition underway among pharmaceutical companies and research institutes. Among those heading the charge are drug giants Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech, as well as smaller biotechs Moderna, Novavax, and Inovio.
None of these companies could continue in their research without products from such companies as Teknova.
Even more now than just three months ago when BenitoLink reported on Teknova’s involvement in the effort to develop a vaccine, the company has stepped up production of cell culture media or molecular biology buffers to the point where it cannot keep up with demand without hiring more people.
Stephen Gunstream, who was recently promoted from CBO to CEO and president, told BenitoLink that the increasing demand for Teknova’s products has resulted in an immediate need for new hires to fill positions from the loading docks to scientific.
“I’m trying to add 10 to 15 people in the next week or two, and it will only go up from there, as we scale up production,” he said. “We’re looking for people with bachelor’s degrees in chemistry, biology or science to formulate reagents, the buffers and mixtures. We’re also looking for people to operate the robotics that fill and cap the tubes, and people for packing and shipping multiple pallets every day. It doesn’t matter what skills you have; we have a need.”
Gunstream said he doesn’t expect the demand to stop anytime soon.
As a global provider of reagents, he said the company provides its products to every pharmaceutical and biotech company involved in the fight against the coronavirus. While he doesn’t know how the fight is going on the front lines, the increased demand for Teknova’s products could be a good indicator of how serious the industry is about testing for the virus and creating a vaccine.
“We’ve been able to really help the diagnostic companies that are doing the testing for COVID-19 by providing a lot of the liquids that go into their kits, as well as on the pharmaceutical side with the vaccine production,” he said.
Pharmaceutical companies are using Teknova products on both the drug discovery side, as well as the production side. The COVID-19-related production at Teknova has drastically offset production for other customers, partially because they too have had to slow down in response to shelter-in-place orders.
“Probably the most significant thing we’ve been working on recently is the scale of manufacturing Viral Transport Medium,” he said, adding that after a person is tested the swab is placed in a stabilizing agent so it can be transported to a testing facility. “You don’t want that to become contaminated or change over time. There’s been a very high demand because there’s not that many suppliers.”
Gunstream said that over the last two months the company has invested heavily in automation capabilities in a sterile setting as it ramps up to produce tens of thousands of its products. He said the company is currently producing nearly 10,000 tubes daily, and that is expected to increase tenfold over the next couple months.”
“We’ve been working with the FDA to make sure we follow all the proper guidelines,” he said. “There’s all sorts of issues along the entire supply chain, like the number of tubes we need, which is pretty difficult because of the demand. The supply chain is just not set up to deal with this amount of demand, which is a hundredfold of what it was six months ago.”
He said a big challenge in getting enough tubes was to find an American supplier because his goal has been to use only American manufacturers.
Even though parts of the Teknova facility are considered sterile environments, it was not immune to COVID-19’s impact. Gunstream said even though people working in the clean rooms were already wearing “bunny suits” consisting of face masks, hoods, goggles, foot wear and gowns, employees still had to adapt to the guidelines.
“After the shelter-in-place we put masks on everyone,” he said. “We sent a number of people home to work remotely. We take temperatures every day and marked off spaces so people understand what six feet is and limit the number of people onsite just to make sure we’re practicing safe distancing.”
He said the company follows the Centers for Disease Control guidelines.
“If someone is sick they stay home,” he said. “If someone they’ve been in close contact with tests positive, then the employee stays home until they are tested. We’ve been fortunate. We have had a handful of people self-isolating, but no positive cases.”
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