BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- At a unique facility in southeast Baltimore, employees of Emergent BioSolutions were hard at work inside the large bioreactor area where coronavirus vaccines—including the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine—will be produced for use around the United States.
"We actually grow the cell cultures, infect them with the viral vectors and then ultimately purify the viral vectors out, which elicits immune response in humans," said Sean Kirk, Emergent BioSolutions' executive vice president in charge of manufacturing.
The company granted WJZ rare access inside its secure campus in Bayview. Three hundred employees work there with dozens more supporting the facility remotely.
"I want the people of Baltimore to be proud that Emergent is here, to be proud of the fact that many residents work in this facility," Kirk said. "Every day, our folks are working long hours to beat this pandemic, and the thing that keeps them motivated is the fact that we're going to be producing hundreds of millions of doses over the coming year."
Emergent has a $480 million contract with Johnson & Johnson and another $174 million contract with AstraZeneca.
The federal government still needs to approve the vaccines for use across the country.
In late January, Johnson & Johnson released the results of its phase three trial and said it plans to seek emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.
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Those results demonstrated 85% protection against severe coronavirus disease in adults of all ages and racial groups 28 days after vaccination. The overall effectiveness rate for preventing moderate to severe illness was 72% in the U.S. and 66% across all countries studied. The vaccine was 57% effective in preventing moderate to severe illness in South Africa, where a more contagious strain has rapidly spread through the population.
Maryland is the second state where the South African strain has been detected. There are at least three cases in Maryland: two in Montgomery County and one in the Baltimore area. The positive patient in the Baltimore area case did not get infected through travel, state health officials said.
The emergence of new strains means vaccines are urgently needed.
People in Maryland and across the country are frustrated at vaccine shortages.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has some advantages. It requires only a single shot—and no special freezers.
"Gambling on one dose was certainly worthwhile," Dr. Mathai Mammen, global research chief for J&J's Janssen Pharmaceutical unit, told The Associated Press.
"You can get a shot of the J & J and 10, 14 days later you're already starting to have a substantial amount of protection," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a top advisor to President Joe Biden.
All COVID-19 vaccines train the body to recognize the new coronavirus, usually by spotting the spikey protein that coats it. But they're made in very different ways.
The Johnson & Johnson shot uses a cold virus like a Trojan horse to carry the spike gene into the body, where cells make harmless copies of the protein to prime the immune system in case the real virus comes along.
Johnson & Johnson said its vaccine works consistently in a broad range of people: a third of participants were over age 60, and more than 40% had other illnesses putting them at risk of severe COVID-19, including obesity, diabetes and HIV. The company insists the vaccine is safe, with reactions similar to other COVID-19 shots such as a fever that occurs when the immune system is revved up.
The University of Maryland School of Medicine's Dr. David Marcozzi, an advisor to Gov. Larry Hogan, called the Johnson & Johnson vaccine a "game-changer"
Emergent Biosolutions told WJZ it is ready for the federal government to greenlight the public's emergency use of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. An advisory committee of the Food and Drug Administration will meet on February 26 to discuss the vaccine candidate.
It typically takes several weeks for the FDA to review results from clinical trials.
Once approval comes, "Nothing changes," he told Hellgren. They are already producing the vaccine.
"We are wide open in manufacturing, "he said. "We have a significant opportunity to potentially save tens of thousands—hundreds of thousands—of lives over the coming months."
Back at Emergent's Bayview facility, the sterile bags lining the tanks can easily be changed out so there is the flexibility to make booster shots or whatever else is needed.
At another Emergent facility, across the street from M&T Bank Stadium, the company has signed a deal to manufacture lenzilumab, a possible treatment for COVID-19.
"There's a tremendous amount of work in the fight of this battle behind the scenes in facilities like ours and other facilities in the industry to make sure that collectively we beat this pandemic," Kirk said.
Johnson and Johnson and AstraZeneca representatives are on-site at Bayview and Kirk said the highest safety standards are being followed.
"The accelerated timelines have not in any way jeopardized the safety that we've built into these products from the very beginning," Kirk said.
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