ALACHUA, FL - Several speakers invoked lessons learned from the Pearl Harbor bombing 75 years ago to the day as they marked the opening of a manufacturing plant that will make vaccines and drug treatments to protect soldiers from chemical and biological threats. About 130 people attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday for Nanotherapeutics' new $138 million, 183,000-square-foot plant built near Progress Park in Alachua, including officials from the Department of Defense, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security and local government. The plant was built to fulfill a Department of Defense grant that could be worth up to $359 million.
"The purpose and the capability of this facility is really fundamentally to avoid a surprise and be better prepared," said Chris Hassell, deputy assistant secretary of defense for chemical and biological defense. "Sixty years after Pearl Harbor we were surprised again with the anthrax mailings and other events of 9/11, so this whole issue of surprise is a common area of discussion, what can we do to avoid surprise, to defend it, to respond to it more effectively and to that end this facility is very important to our capability to do that."
The plant will be fully operational in February when it will start to produce for the military stockpiles of vaccines and treatments against bioterrorism weapons and infectious diseases, such as Ebola. Nanotherapeutics had about 65 employees when it landed the contract in 2013 and now has about 190, including over 120 in Alachua with a goal of at least 150 making an average of $90,000 a year, and others at a vaccine-manufacturing plant in the Czech Republic and offices in Maryland and California.
The Department of Defense has contracts with many different companies for vaccine and treatment manufacturing, which has not been very efficient, said Tim Belski, product director for the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense. The White House asked the military in 2010 to create a facility to speed up and better control vaccine and drug manufacturing, while also mandating that Health and Human Services open three similar facilities for the general public's health needs.
Nanotherapeutics' manufacturing process will use disposable bags within stainless steel equipment that will allow for quicker transition to different products without costly and time-consuming cleanup, as well as to make multiple products at one time. "It's your taxpayer dollar that we're using and we wanted to find a way to do it better," said Doug Bryce, joint program executive officer for chemical and biological defense. "This was about how do we change from business as usual to something different and use cutting-edge processes and equipment to get our nation's warfighters what they need when they need it for a biological threat."
The plant marks a shift from Nanotherapeutics' start in 1999 using tiny, nanometer-scale particle technology to develop pharmaceuticals into what is now a contract production company making biological products. Hassell said small biotech companies will benefit from the plant's complex manufacturing and regulatory capabilities, as will larger companies that can use the smaller-scale production for military contracts. In addition to the military work, Nanotherapeutics is going after commercial biotech manufacturing work. Chairman Weaver Gaines said the plant's small-scale production capabilities could be a less expensive option for local biotech startup companies. "Think about what the economic impact of that could be," he said. The plant complies with National Institutes of Health and more-stringent military guidelines to make sure any harmful products are properly contained and no solid or liquid waste will be hazardous, said William Hensler, senior vice president of global operations. The facility also has several layers of security, including perimeter gates and fences, cameras, security guards and badges backed by fingerprint scanners to ensure employees only gain access to specific areas.