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c.2012 Houston Chronicle< The Texas A&M University System has won an immense federal contract to become a national hub of vaccine production and bioterror preparedness.
The federal contract to create a Center for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing in College Station is likely worth at least $1.5 to $2 billion over the next 25 years.
"It's the biggest federal grant to come to Texas since NASA, quite frankly," Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp said.
The contract, announced Monday by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, is remarkable for several reasons.
Politically it comes during an election year, from a Democratic administration, to the alma mater of Gov. Rick Perry, who has made much political hay by pillorying President Barack Obama.
''They played it right straight down the middle and gave it to the people who were best qualified, even if it's from a state and university that's not considered very Democratic," Sharp said.
More than 1,000 jobs
The economic implications for the College Station area are also significant. About 1,000 jobs will be created during a construction phase that will last about five year. After that there should be many more, said Dr. Brett Giroir, the Texas A&M scientist who led the university's bid. Additionally the development should attract drug companies to invest in or relocate to the area.
For the state's biotechnology industry, Monday's announcement is a game-changer, said Jacqueline Northcut, president and chief executive of BioHouston, which promotes life sciences commercialization in the Houston region.
''This is a major win for Texas and Houston," Northcut said. "This is one leg of the stool that was missing for Texas - the ability to manufacture biologics on a major scale. What A&M and College Station have assembled is the right cornerstone we need for industrial development of biotechnology in Texas."
Expanding its portfolio
The announcement also has implications for the Texas A&M system itself, which began as an institution devoted to agriculture and engineering, and had been searching for a way to expand its life sciences portfolio in an era that emphasizes human biology over all other research.
Other state institutions, primarily affiliated with the University of Texas system, excel at basic medical research and clinical trials. In between, however, there is a scarcity of resources and space for taking lab breakthroughs, conducting animal tests and making large, quality-controlled batches of new medicines for clinical trials.
A&M's veterinary school and engineering expertise will help ease and speed this "translational" phase of medicine development, Giroir said.
That's precisely what the federal government sought in awarding three large contracts, one to Texas A&M and the others to bids led by private contractors, Emergent BioSolutions and Novartis.
''Establishing these centers represents a dramatic step forward in ensuring that the United States can produce lifesaving countermeasures quickly and nimbly," Sebelius said Monday.
It took about eight months to make the H1N1 vaccine after the initial swine flu outbreak in 2009, by which time tens of millions of Americans already had been infected and experienced mild symptoms. That outbreak and concerns about the potential for bioterrorism prompted the federal government to create three new centers that would be capable of making 50 million doses of influenza vaccine within four months.
After coming to Texas A&M in 2008 from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Giroir urged state officials to consider investing in this area.
Giroir obtained a $50 million grant from Perry's Texas Emerging Technology Fund to build the National Center for Therapeutics Manufacturing, a large complex that provides educational opportunities for students, as well as modular space for developing, testing and manufacturing vaccines and other drugs. It opened last fall in College Station.
The federal grant provides $176 million over the first five years to build several other large facilities. The state will have to contribute an additional $55 million and private partners, including large vaccine maker GlaxoSmithKline, will provide approximately the same amount.
After construction, provided the federal government is satisfied with Texas A&M's efforts, the center will receive $432 million over the life of the contract to support and maintain the facilities, as well as up to $100 million a year in task orders.
If the center is used to manufacture a pandemic influenza vaccine, more money would flow.
Giroir noted that the A&M center is obligated to use the facilities for government work only 50 percent of the time.
''That's going to mean a huge economic impact for the state," he said. "It's an opportunity to leverage more of these companies to come to Texas, to work on global health and perhaps use the facility to produce seasonal influenza vaccines."
The Chronicle's Kolten Parker contributed to this story.
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