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Ginkgo opens facilities to help COVID-19 coronavirus response

Boston biotech firm is making its discovery and production service available to firms working on diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines

by Melody M. Bomgardner
March 20, 2020

This photo shows a Ginkgo foundry where the company develops microbes and produces biomolecules for customers.
Credit: Ginkgo Bioworks
A Ginkgo foundry where the company develops microbes and produces biomolecules for customers.

Ginkgo Bioworks says it will contribute its microbial discovery, production, and fermentation infrastructure to companies and academic researchers working on coronavirus response. The company intends to provide $25 million in free work at its Boston-area locations to support the effort.

Gingko launched in 2009 to provide expertise and technology to companies developing biomanufacturing processes for specialty chemicals and pharmaceuticals. The firm has raised over $700 million from investors to build four service facilities that it calls foundries. Its customers include Bayer and Roche.

Ginkgo CEO Jason Kelly is now offering the firm’s expertise and equipment to discover and develop biological molecules, such as proteins and mRNA, that can detect or ward off the novel coronavirus.

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While public health agencies work through the spring and summer to contain the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection, Ginkgo wants to play a coordinating role for biotech firms developing tools to fight it, Kelly tells C&EN.

“We don’t know what will happen in the fall. We need to have point-of-care diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines ready. But that takes time,” Kelly says. “The number one thing everyone should be asking is if they can help with that.”

Kelly stresses that the biotech industry needs to use existing infrastructure “right now” in the COVID-19 fight. Ginkgo does not develop or produce its own pharmaceuticals or specialty chemicals. Instead it has invested roughly $400 million in biological discovery, automated lab processes, and production equipment for client firms that bring products to market.

In its foundries, Ginkgo can provide process development for producing vaccine DNA. It can help develop E. coli or other microbe strains and enzymes for making plasmids, DNA, mRNA-based vaccines, or CRISPR-based diagnostics. The company can also synthesize DNA and conduct high-throughput screening for vaccines and therapeutics.

Ginkgo likens its proposal to a five-point plan announced by Pfizer but geared toward start-ups. Kelly says many start-ups do not have capacity for high-speed development and testing but are valuable sources of ideas and solutions.

“In therapeutics, the crazy options all come from start-ups,” he says. “At the same time, vaccines and anti-infectives have not been a big area for pharmaceutical firms—the pool is thin. It’s not that nothing is out there, but we don’t want only a couple of shots on goal; that’s too risky.”

Kelly also wants to play a role similar to Pfizer as a point of connection to sources of funding and to the growing body of information about R&D at companies and academic institutions.

At Ginkgo, all nonessential employees are working from home, and the company’s health and safety division is holding daily briefings. But the opportunity to pitch in is psychologically important, Kelly says.

“In the biotech industry, we have real agency in this situation because we can get involved,” he says. “That is heartening, because otherwise it feels like a situation that is really out of control.”


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