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    Thursday, June 13, 2024

    New Pfizer site lead shares role Groton employees played in COVID-19 drug development — and what's next

    Groton — When Pfizer was developing and testing the COVID-19 antiviral pill Paxlovid, the first molecule was analyzed in Groton. The initial studies to determine the potency were done in Groton. The regulatory work needed to file for emergency use authorization was done in Groton.

    And for the COVID-19 vaccine before that, employees at the research and development site in Groton were part of clinical development, safety and supply coordination, and manufacturing operations in Groton were instrumental in producing the component of the vaccine that allows mRNA to be transferred in the body.

    More than 2,600 scientists and research and development professionals work for Pfizer in Groton and New Haven.

    This is some of the information that Raja Mangipudy, the new head of Pfizer's Groton site, shared at a business breakfast the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut held Wednesday morning at the Mystic Marriott.

    "Every new drug that Pfizer works on has to make its way through Groton, and our site has touched every molecule in the portfolio," Mangipudy said.

    Chamber President and CEO Tony Sheridan said this was Mangipudy's first external speaking engagement since taking on this role at the beginning of the year.

    Mangipudy — who also serves as head of global drug safety research and development, or R&D, and head of comparative medicine — replaced John Burkhardt, who retired in February. The chamber is honoring Burkhardt as its Citizen of the Year at Mohegan Sun on May 6.

    Mangipudy said Pfizer produced 3 billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2021 and expects to produce 4 billion this year, and the company has pledged 2 billion doses to low- and middle-income countries.

    But he acknowledged that despite the vaccine, "we are up against a formidable foe" due to several factors such as the global distribution of the coronavirus, mutations in the virus and the ability of previously infected people to become reinfected. Pfizer is working on the next generation of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

    R&D beyond COVID-19

    Mangipudy said now that mRNA has been established as a viable platform for vaccines, Pfizer is interested in leveraging it for other diseases, such as influenza.

    Asked about cancer research, he said Pfizer is trying to see if it can come up with oncological vaccines that are patient-specific rather than generic.

    Pfizer also announced Monday that its candidate for a Lyme disease vaccine is expected to enter late-stage trials sometime this year, and this will include kids over 5 as well as adults.

    Capital improvements, workforce development

    Mangipudy said Pfizer leadership has made a commitment to "significant capital investments" at the Groton site, to the tune of about $40 million in 2022. Jim Turner, site leader for global workplace solutions, said that figure is "miniscule" compared to the overall wish list.

    Turner said an office building is in the design process to be converted to lab space, and Pfizer is looking into expanding warehousing space in Groton.

    Mangipudy also said Pfizer is looking to hire for at least 100 new positions in Groton as part of the expansion.

    Amid hiring challenges across industries, Mangipudy said the roles Pfizer is having the most difficulty filling are entry-level technical roles, that there's a lot of turnover. He added that Pfizer is trying to engage people early on by working with schools and the community.

    Liz Power, Groton site affairs lead, added that one of the additional challenges posed by COVID-19 was isolation. She said many of the 500 people who joined Pfizer in the last two years set foot on site only a few weeks ago, and Pfizer is reaching out to volunteer and educational organizations to facilitate connections so people are less likely to leave.

    "It's clear that the economy is coming back," Sheridan said at the beginning of the event. He said the chamber lost a number of members as it dealt with COVID-19 "but we are getting back to some semblance of normalcy, and thank you to Pfizer for that."

    According to the daily numbers from the office of Gov. Ned Lamont, the reported coronavirus test positivity rate Wednesday was 8.8%, the highest it's been since Jan. 28, after the omicron surge peaked. But the test positivity rate doesn't include results of at-home tests.

    There were 210 people hospitalized in Connecticut on Wednesday with COVID-19, compared to 1,192 in late January and 444 people on this day last year, when the test positivity rate was 3.24%.

    Lamont's update Tuesday said that of the people hospitalized with COVID-19, 32.5% aren't fully vaccinated, whereas less than 21% of the state's population isn't fully vaccinated. More than 95% of people have at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

    e.moser@theday.com

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