Fighting COVID: New Jersey Leads During the Pandemic

On December 11, 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued the first emergency use authorization (EUA) for a vaccine for the prevention of COVID-19. That vaccine was manufactured by Pfizer, Inc. at its 23 facilities across 11 different countries. It was a major milestone in the campaign to combat the virus that had disrupted the entire world. It was a pivotal moment in the life sciences industry when the company announced last fall after less than 12 months of development, its mRNA vaccine was 95 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 infections. Pfizer has a major presence in New Jersey, and along its R&D journey were four key contributors that got their start Ramapo College of New Jersey. This is their story; one of many breakthroughs in the battle against COVID-19. Dozens of companies in New Jersey have made a difference during the past year, a true example of companies coming together at a time of unprecedented need and relying on New Jersey talent to find success.

Ramapo College Alumni and the Pfizer Vaccine

In 2002, Ramapo College made headway by being one of the first four-year colleges in the U.S. to develop a Bachelor of Science program in bioinformatics. According to Ramapo Professor Paramjeet Bagga, co-founder of the program, “These courses are known to be extremely challenging but these students worked very hard and accepted the challenges with smiles,” when speaking about his former students. Amanda Gryzmolowicz ’10 (B.S. Biology, minor in Chemistry), Jake Stass ’10 (B.S. Biology), Mingzhao Liu ’16 (B.S. Bioinformatics, B.S. Computer science) and Patrick DeMarinis ’19 (B.S. Bioinformatics), all New Jersey natives and Ramapo College alumni, each contributed in their own way to the success of the Pfizer vaccine. 

Gryzmolowicz and Stass, who graduated in 2010, never expected what was to come when they started their careers. After earning his degree, Stass joined the team at Pfizer in 2012 and spent four years in La Jolla California working as a lab analyst, receiving biological samples collected from the company’s vaccine programs and clinical trials. He then returned to Pearl River, NY in 2019 where he currently provides training materials for the company’s clinical sites on sample collection and processing instructions. 

Gryzmolowicz was met with an opportunity through Professor Bagga to work for a pharmaceutical company in either New York or Virginia in June 2010. She ended up accepting a contract position with Pfizer in Pearl River by August of that same year. She began working as a scientist on two prominent vaccines focused on pneumonia and meningitis and has been part of the Vaccine R&D organization for almost eleven years. She now manages a team as the Informatics Operations Lead and is responsible for customer communication, system validation, clinical research organization access and collaboration, account management, and project planning and resourcing. 

Liu joined Pfizer as a Senior Informatics Engineer in 2017 after earning his Bachelor of Science in both Informatics and Computer Science. He develops and tests new systems for data tracking, maintaining existing systems, and assisting with support tasks. He says, “The work could be best described as being constantly on alert since everything relating to COVID-19 had to be handled carefully and quickly. We were constantly picking up one task and dropping it to work on COVID-19 related work. It naturally took precedence over all other projects.”

DeMarinis also took interest in the Bioinformatics program, noting the unique combination of biology, medicine, and technology. Shortly after graduation in 2019, DeMarinis began his career at Pfizer as a Validation Engineer on the Research Informatics team. He, along with the other Ramapo alumni, credits his current career success to his experience at the college. “When I went to Ramapo, I took my interest in the sciences and learned about applications that I had never previously known about. A lot of hard work went into this [vaccination] project. It was amazing to see all of that effort pay off. I was excited, proud, and relieved.”

These four individuals accomplished something in record time. Their work, however, is far from over. “The testing must continue, and we must continue to support the labs in their efforts,” says Liu. Pfizer’s interest has now shifted to maternal and pediatric trials. New Jersey’s impact on the COVID-19 pandemic has been a notable one and we’ll continue to watch as the State’s leading healthcare companies make great strides toward a better tomorrow.

NEW JERSEY COMPANIES ACCELERATE
COVID-19 INNOVATION

By the end of 2021, it’s safe to say that the majority of the country will have been positively impacted by the COVID-related efforts of a New Jersey company. Pfizer is just one company in the biopharma industry to have a footprint here; of the 20 largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, 13 in total have a New Jersey address. In addition, several dozen New Jersey-based medical technology companies, healthcare facilities, and manufacturers have stepped up to be part of solving the pandemic. These contributions include:

Major Life Sciences and Healthcare Contributions

The following companies are examples of how New Jersey has aided in fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

Johnson & Johnson (New Brunswick, NJ) received emergency FDA approval for its breakthrough one-dose COVID-19 vaccine.

Merck (Kenilworth, NJ) is partnering with J&J to manufacture its COVID-19 vaccines.

Sanofi (Ridgefield, NJ) is leveraging the infrastructure and manufacturing expertise at its Ridgefield, NJ facility to help fill up to 200 million doses of Moderna’s vaccine beginning in September. It is the only company to support the production of vaccines for 3 different companies on top of developing its own candidates.

BioAegis Therapeutics (North Brunswick, NJ) discovered a key link between severe COVID-19 cases and patients having low levels of the protein “gelsolin.” It is currently in Phase 2 trials for a potential therapeutic for coronavirus.

OncoSec (Pennington, NJ) is in Phase 1 trial of CORVax12 vaccine candidate. The first subjects were tested at the end of January.

Bellerophon Therapeutics (Warren, NJ) is in the process of developing a Nitric Oxide therapy utilizing an inhalant. In Phase 3 trials, Nitric oxide was shown in previous studies to help prevent viral replication and arterial oxygenation of SARS-CoV, which is 82 percent related to COVID.

electroCore (Basking Ridge, NJ) successfully received EUA from the FDA for the use of its gammaCore Sapphire™ CV vagus nerve stimulator to help treat asthma-related symptoms exacerbated by coronavirus.

Admera Health (South Plainfield, NJ) developed the ability to deep sequence the virus’s entire genome, a key ingredient in drug and vaccine development that will prove doubly valuable as the virus mutates.

PTC Therapeutics (South Plainfield, NJ) is currently in the second stage of Phase ⅔ clinical trials for its experimental cancer drug, PTC299, being utilized as an oral treatment for COVID-19 that inhibits viral replication and reduces inflammation post-infection.

Cellularity (Florham Park, NJ) announced the testing of a stem-cell treatment that uses “Natural Killer” white blood cells, called CYNK-001. Clinical trials are underway for its use in treatment in COVID-19 patients, while the FDA has also fast-tracked the treatment for use with glioblastoma multiforme, a form of cancer that affects the brain and spine.

Hackensack Meridian Health (Edison, New Jersey) teamed up with Merck to collaborate on identifying treatment candidates for the virus. Also created the COVID Recovery Center, aimed to provide care and study patients that are experiencing long-term complications from the virus. Several other healthcare entities have set up similar programs within the State, including the Deborah Heart and Lung Center, University Hospital in Newark and St. Peter’s University Hospital. The latter has teamed up with the Mayo Clinic, to share data as part of its Convalescent Plasma Therapy Research Program.

University Contributions

As home to several leading research universities, New Jersey has seen multiple contributions come from its higher education institutions as well.

Rutgers University

RUCDR Infinite Biologics (now Infinity BiologiX) was granted EUA to produce the first ever saliva-based, at-home COVID test for general use. The test helped protect health care professionals who were previously at risk of infection performing swab-testing of the nose and throat, as well as made testing less invasive.

Princeton University

Princeton University alumni and local startup Optimeos Life Sciences inc., developed a nanoparticle technology that could help introduce five times as much vaccine into recipients’ cells, which would further enhance any vaccination’s effectiveness.

Rowan University

Medical students and engineers helped manufacture a design and produce a 3D-printed mask for protecting against COVID. Rather than wait to find a solution to mass production, the university made the plans available on its website, where anyone that owns a capable 3D printer can access.

New Jersey Institute of Technology

From the depths of its Makerspace, an ecosystem created by the university to help facilitate innovation, invention, and product realization, the NJIT community collaborated to design and fabricate face shields to combat the diminished supplies for emergency workers. The shield used HDPE plastic specifically to combat pathogens clinging to the mask.

Additional Contributions in Fighting the Pandemic

While the life sciences and health care sectors have been the leaders in the fight against coronavirus, they haven’t been the only companies in the State to step up. Manufacturing establishments and public utilities have stepped up as well. Some, such as a Lysol factory in Somerset County, have a newfound sense of pride in their day-to-day. Others, like those below, were forced to pivot to find a way to contribute.

PSEG (Newark, NJ)

To help with the immediate shortfalls of medical supplies for emergency workers across the State, PSE&G donated 50,000 n95 respirator masks. The type of mask continues to be in such high demand during the pandemic that the FDA has requested that the general public not use them to enable more to make themselves to first responders and health care workers.

BASF (Florham Park, NJ)

The German manufacturer repurposed its facility in Washington, NJ, to make a product it has never made before – hand sanitizer. With a goal of producing 3,500 gallons, BASF has been providing the sanitizer to New Jersey and New York state hospitals and government agencies free of charge.

Unionwear (Newark, NJ)

The apparel brand switched its operations early in the pandemic to focus on manufacturing face shields. The company was capable of producing 8,000 to 10,000 shields per day for local hospitals.

Sandy Alexander (Clifton, NJ)

While much of the aid has been focused on healthcare workers, Sandy Alexander pivoted to help other essential workers. The manufacturer utilized their plant in New Jersey to help create plastic “sneeze guards” that could be used to protect cashiers.

Brother International Corp. (Bridgewater, NJ)

The international standout in home and office supplies didn’t need to go far to make an immediate impact on combating the virus – the company donated 100 industrial sewing machines to other manufacturers who were creating personal protective equipment for healthcare workers in New Jersey.

Innovate in a State that Makes a Difference

Over the course of a single year, New Jersey’s ecosystem has shown itself capable of not just answering the call when needed, but playing a major role in saving lives. Choose New Jersey’s goal is to help companies see their potential in our State. As a non-profit economic development organization, we are able to provide you with free and confidential insight to assist you in market intelligence, site selection assistance, State resource information, and more. Are you in the life science, healthcare, or manufacturing industries? Contact us today to learn more about joining those that already found success in New Jersey.

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