Updates from SMI

Q&A on COVID-19 with Dr. Travis Taylor, SMI’S Resident Virologist

by: Roger Mellado and Richa Patel 

SMI prides itself on being comprised of a team of highly experienced technical and policy experts. In times like this, we are especially lucky to have associates like Dr. Travis Taylor on the team. Dr. Taylor holds a BA in Biology from the University of Southern Indiana and a PhD in Virology from Harvard University. He has previously worked at the National Institute of Health (NIH), National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), and has supported agencies including the Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Department of State.

SMI intern, Roger Mellado, recently had a Q&A session with Dr. Taylor on questions surrounding the Covid-19 crisis, which you can read below. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Roger: You’re a member of SMI’s Life Sciences team, which assists clients in capturing research and development funding. What impact from the Covid-19 pandemic have you seen in this field?

Dr. Taylor: “This is somewhat of a paradox. While some sectors have really been ramping up, others have been negatively impacted due to shutdowns. Medical countermeasures, such as vaccines and drugs for COVID-19, for example, are booming. University research centers, on the other hand, were affected negatively because of laboratory closures for other major research projects not directly related to the pandemic, such as cancer research and neuroscience. Some smaller companies may have been impacted as well – you can’t do lab work from your kitchen sink. The medical research industry is moving forward, though, and there has been an influx of interest in COVID-19 funding with large COVID-19 related awards flowing through the Biomedical Research and Development Authority (BARDA). Contract Research Organizations (CROs) have also been very busy, which is driving up prices for such services in a very competitive landscape.

I believe there’s going to be an increase in R&D funding that lasts beyond the Covid pandemic. Policy makers have become more attuned to the security risks of the global supply chain and there’s a larger push for PPE and other pharmaceuticals to be made in the United States. There is a real opportunity on the horizon for companies that can innovate and make drugs or other medical equipment cheaper in the US. Domestically produced PPE and medical equipment is another huge growth area.”

Roger: How does the Life Sciences team at SMI help clients respond to the pandemic crisis?

Dr. Taylor: “We build a funding and engagement strategy for our clients based upon the technology’s maturity and funding needs. We foster relationships with potential partners to strengthen the team and with federal program officers to raise awareness and support for the research. We have supported clients with their BARDA CoronaWatch submissions, which is the online portal for all COVID-19 related topics to BARDA. We have introduced our clients to partners that can test their products or medical countermeasures in high or maximum containment and that have the appropriate in vitro and in vivo SARS-CoV-2 models. This is critical because there is a development bottleneck for preliminary testing of products (such as antiviral coatings) and medical countermeasures. There is limited BSL-3 laboratory capacity in the US and often there can be long lines for getting something evaluated with SARS-CoV-2.”

Roger: What opportunities in research funding do you see spurring from this unforeseen pandemic?

Dr. Taylor: “I think there will be greater interest in not only medical countermeasures but also other tools needed to evaluate the efficacy of drugs and vaccines (like better in vitro and in vivo models). There will be an increased interest in novel vaccine platforms and adjuvants that increase the immunogenicity of vaccines. Advances in these areas will have a broad impact on other infectious diseases. In order to meet the domestic pharmaceutical manufacturing needs, we will need major innovations in how we manufacture drugs to decrease the production costs.”

Roger: How does the Life Sciences team at SMI stay up to date on coronavirus related activities? 

Dr. Taylor: “We are regularly looking at CDC and official source announcements on information regarding the virus, reading the scientific literature, and searching for new funding solicitations from agencies such as the Department of Defense, Health & Human Services, and Homeland Security. We also have connections within the scientific community – including the NIH, BARDA, and private organizations – that we speak to regularly for updates.”

Roger: Given your education and expertise as a virologist, do you think it is feasible that a mass produced vaccine could be offered to the public before the end of the calendar year?

Dr. Taylor: “It’s quite optimistic but I do hope for promising Phase 3 clinical results by the end of the calendar year. The manufacturing scale up to produce the doses required to vaccinate everyone will take some time, but some companies are moving forward with manufacturing plans on the hope that the clinical data is positive. I would assume that the initial vaccine doses will go to at risk populations and front line medical workers. It may take some time before it is available to the wider public. And there is a chance it will take more than one dose for full protection. Hopefully by the first half of 2021, there will be a robust vaccination campaign on going that is reaching millions of people.”

Roger: In your opinion, what is the projected timeline for people returning back to their work places instead of working remotely? Do you believe that remote meetings and work are here to stay?  

Dr. Taylor: “I think things will change for good. There has been a cultural shift in how many offices operate that lends to a more blended work experience. This period of remote work has shown that the workforce can remain productive from home, and some businesses are realizing they can operate on less office space. Technology also keeps people highly connected – I’ve been more connected to my coworkers over the last five months than when we shared an office! I foresee a lasting shift in how we work and interact.”

Updates from Washington

Republicans’ Coronavirus Relief Plan Includes $30 BIllion for the Pentagon

by: Aarzu Maknojia

Earlier this week, the Senate Republicans released the content of their coronavirus relief plan. In addition to stimulus payments to individuals and additional unemployment benefits, the $1 trillion aid package includes nearly $30 billion for the Department of Defense. This includes: – – -$686 million for the F-35A jet
-$720 million for the C-130J fighter jet
-$650 million for A-10 wing replacements
-$1.1 billion for the P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol planes
-$1.45 billion for four expeditionary medical ships
-$260 million for one expeditionary fast transport ship
-$250 million for amphibious shipbuilding
-$250 million for surface combatant supplier base program
-$800 million toward the National Guard and reserves’ equipment account
-$375 million to upgrade Stryker Double V-Hull armored fighting vehicles
-$283 million for new AH-64 Boeing Apache helicopters
-$319.6 million for a new battery of THAAD as well as radars
-$65.8 million for hypersonic missile defense
-$39.2 million for cruise missile defense
-$200 million for the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system
-$290 million for a space-based missile sensor layer
-$11 billion to reimburse defense contractors under Section 3610
-$705 million for defense health programs
-$2.6 billion for operations and maintenance funding
-$5.3 billion for the Defense Production Act

The House Democrats’ $3 trillion relief bill released in May did not include any funding for the DoD. Several top Democrats including House Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey have made scathing comments about defense funding being a part of a coronavirus relief bill as opposed to a part of the regular appropriations process. The Democrats and Republicans will need to negotiate their differences before a relief bill is sent to the President to be signed. It is likely that Congress will aim to pass a relief bill before their August recess.

House to Consider Appropriations Bills This Week; Senate Still to Markup

by: Aarzu Maknojia

The House Appropriations Committee has marked up all 12 appropriations bills and has started hearing them on the floor. On July 24th, the House passed a package with the appropriations bills for State-Foreign Operations, Agriculture-Rural Development-FDA-Interior-Environment, Military Construction, and Veterans Affairs. It intends to hear six more later this week: Defense, Commerce-Justice-Science, Energy and Water Development, Financial Service and General Government, Labor-HHS-Education, and Transportation-Housing and Urban Development.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has not marked up any of its 12 appropriations bills and it appears unlikely that it will prior to the November elections. Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee is worried that members will use the mark up time to propose contentious amendments in order to make a political statement prior to the elections saying that he will “not allow the appropriations process to be hijacked and turned into a partisan sideshow.” It appears unlikely that the parties will come to an agreement to limit their amendments.

This is a developing story that can change at a moment’s notice. We will keep you updated with the latest news.