KALAMAZOO — Nine months ago, some of the first COVID-19 vaccines left Portage and found their way into the arms of patients around the country.
Pfizer Inc.’s vaccine manufacturing plant created a point of pride in the Southwest Michigan community’s role in helping the U.S. emerge from the pandemic.
The Kalamazoo area is once again the epicenter of a new, potentially groundbreaking vaccine against the highly contagious virus. But this time, doses are heading to a different kind of recipient.
For roughly a year, Zoetis Inc. — a former Pfizer subsidiary that was spun off into an independent company — has worked to develop a COVID vaccine for animals.
Last month, the New Jersey-based company — which maintains its research and development operations in Kalamazoo — announced plans to ship 11,000 doses of its experimental vaccine to nearly 70 zoos across the country for 100 mammalian species.
“We’re a company for animals, so we want to make sure any animals that are susceptible are protected,” Mahesh Kumar, senior vice president of global biologics for Zoetis, told MiBiz. Kumar leads the development of the company’s vaccines for animals, which are critical for protecting certain at-risk species and preventing transmission to humans.
Meanwhile, local economic developers hope to leverage the area’s prominent role in COVID-19 vaccine development — as well as the life sciences cluster more broadly — to fuel future growth.
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As a global animal health company, Zoetis develops programs around certain vaccines by constantly monitoring emerging diseases.
COVID-19 among animal populations became a concern last year when research revealed dogs in Hong Kong tested positive for the virus.
Kumar said the company initially started to develop a vaccine for dogs and cats. As those efforts progressed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) determined that the number of cases among cats and dogs didn’t warrant a vaccine.
Zoetis continued the program at its own pace and continues to monitor the domestic animal space. If a vaccine is ever needed, the company can quickly ramp up.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 cropped up among mink in Denmark, demonstrating the potential for this animal to serve as a reservoir for the disease that could eventually be cycled back into the human population. That’s when the USDA allowed for a program centered on mink. Zoetis is working toward full USDA approval for its vaccination to be used on mink.
However, as news of Zoetis’ experimental animal vaccine began to circulate, other animal-focused institutions took notice.
This included the San Diego Zoo, which used Zoetis’ experimental vaccine on apes in March of this year. This additional interest led Zoetis to ship free doses of zoos around the world.
“These animals are in enclosures, but you have hundreds of people coming and going every day,” Kumar said. “The chances of an infected person coming into contact with a zoo animal is very high.”
Protecting endangered animals is another component to Zoetis’ work.
“You’re talking about very loved animals that have been in the zoos for a long time, and we want to make sure that, if there is a need, we help them out,” Kumar said.
This animal vaccine can also potentially benefit humans in a major way by eliminating a source of infection.
“For us, we’re a company that deals with animals — we want to make sure that, if animals are a source of reservoir (for COVID), that we’re able to protect and stop that source,” Kumar said.
One more level of safety
Kumar said Zoetis will monitor the vaccination efforts at zoos and report findings to the USDA in order to measure the effectiveness of the two-dose product.
While Zoetis did not share which zoos are scheduled to receive COVID doses, or what they would use them for, both John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids and Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek confirmed that they are slated to receive the experimental vaccine.
Since it is pending federal approval for various states, neither of the Michigan zoos knew exactly when they would receive the doses.
“We know there have been (COVID) cases in a lot of the large cats — snow leopard, lions, tigers,” said Dr. Kim Thompson, staff veterinarian at Binder Park Zoo. “We’re most interested in getting animals like that vaccinated here … because that can provide us one more level of safety with those animals. It hasn’t really caused a lot of mortality in those animals, but they can get sick.”
Thompson and her team at Binder Park are prioritizing vaccinations based on which species are most susceptible. However, they are also taking into consideration stress on the animal.
“We also have a lot of animals that are trained to voluntarily receive an injection of a vaccine so they don’t require anesthesia,” Thompson said. “They’ll present their hip or shoulder to us so we can have them participate in the vaccination program and have it be very low stress to them.”
Life sciences cluster shines
The cities of Kalamazoo and Portage continue to embed themselves into national headlines as one of the major U.S. hubs for COVID-19 vaccination efforts.
National media descended on Portage at the end of 2020 when Pfizer shipped out the company’s first doses of the vaccine nationwide. Zoetis’ efforts have continued to shine a spotlight on the area’s signature cluster of life and animal sciences companies.
Carla Sones, president and interim CEO at economic development firm Southwest Michigan First, said these high-profile accomplishments are an opportunity to pitch the area to similar companies. The recruitment effort would position newcomers as joining a cluster that includes both heavyweight legacy companies like Pfizer and Stryker Corp., in addition to a group of companies that were spun off in recent decades and are now starting to grow and thrive.
“I think we have a real opportunity to talk about what the assets are here in Southwest Michigan, especially when it relates to life science and animal science,” Sones said. “We have a cluster of companies here that have been high-profile, and that always gives us an opportunity to talk about why — why here? What are some of the reasons they’re successful here, and why do their employees like to work here?”
The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and The Right Place Inc. launched a similar effort this year in the Grand Rapids area after Grand River Aseptic Manufacturing Inc. was selected to produce the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.
For the Kalamazoo area, large legacy companies have already produced some of the infrastructure needed to grow a sector. A strong higher education system and the addition of a medical school also lay the groundwork for a strong pool of talent.
“When Pfizer chose here and facilities were upgraded, everything was designed around the users we had and how they could grow in the future,” Sones said. “So we have availability that other communities may not have in terms of that infrastructure.”
Kumar of Zoetis agreed that the collection of large legacy companies in the Kalamazoo area, paired with its educational community, has created a deep talent pool.
“It really is a great thing to tap into all those resources, but when you have a situation like this, it’s also a great sense of pride for us to be able to step up and develop a vaccination quickly and deliver,” Kumar said. “For us to have a complete R&D center in Kalamazoo with subject matter experts in almost every field you can think of in the same building, it really helps us ramp up whatever we want to do and get a product to market quickly.”
Sones said building momentum among new businesses and startups is generally a slow moving process, even with leveraging the area’s life sciences prominence. She said her organization must actively market the stories of Kalamazoo and Portage to site consultants and CEOs to start enticing them to the area.
“There is the thing called ‘Midwest Nice,’ and I think Kalamazoo and Southwest Michigan has a little bit of that,” Sones said. “But it’s time for us to be really openly proud of who we are and of some of these legacy companies, and not be afraid to shout it from the rooftops that we have it going on here and we’re ready and open for business.”