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The Bioeconomy Throws its Efforts Behind Health Care

Cornelia Poku
Cornelia Poku
May 12, 2020

Our entire economy has been consumed by coronavirus—including and perhaps especially the bioeconomy.

It seems obvious that health biotechnologists across the world have ramped up their work; sometimes experimenting around the clock. But what is less obvious is that biotech companies across agricultural and environmental sectors have also ramped up their work to assist.

From switching over facilities to produce new products to redirecting existing resources, the ag and industrial biotech companies are helping their health peers.

BIO’s VP of industrial and environment, Stephanie Batchelor lays out details in her new op-ed for Morning Consult.

“This sector, which is anchored by synthetic biology startups and renewable chemical and sustainable fuel producers, is helping in unique ways. And, in doing so, providing a blueprint for how we can create a more resilient world in the future,” Stephanie writes.

As fear of the new virus gripped the world, people started hoarding products they hoped would save them—namely personal protective equipment, cleaning products, and hand sanitizer—causing worldwide shortages. Several companies stepped up.

Amyris, a biotech company that produces a synthetic version of moisturizing agent squalene, jumped in to produce hand sanitizer; the dupe is called squalane and prevents the need to source squalene from sharks. Amyris is now using that ingredient and their resources to develop widely available hand sanitizer and more to donate to those at the front-lines.

They have also been using their technology to develop an adjuvant that will help make vaccines more potent.  

Additionally, several sustainable fuels companies in the U.S. and across Europe such as Absolute Energy, Pacific Ethanol, and Grain Process Corp. are giving away high-grade ethanol for hand sanitizer production.

But hand sanitizer is not the only way ag and environment biotech companies are joining the fight.

Aequor is helping to stop the spread too. The chemical company is making their advanced “green” surface cleaner available to hospitals and public spaces. Similarly, Cargill which is best known in Europe for producing alcohol, has donated disinfectant to the Dutch government.

Twist Bioscience, a chemical manufacturing company specializing in synthetic DNA, has focused their energy away from industrial and agricultural biotech towards providing a copycat virus for vaccine researchers to work with, eliminating the need to work with the live virus (which is high-risk). 

The company is also working on a larger respiratory viral panel to test for many related viruses—SARS, MERS, influenza—which will be particularly useful once the pandemic has passed.

Poland-based company Proteon pharmaceuticals, whose main focus has been on animal health, diverted their facilities and staff to create a coronavirus testing lab to help speed up diagnosing the disease.

“Quick and mass diagnostics is currently the most important tool for stopping the growth of coronavirus infections. If it is possible to detect a virus infection faster and on a larger scale, the infected people will be isolated sooner and receive appropriate treatment. This will translate into a decline in infection dynamics," Professor Jarosław Dastych, CEO of Proteon Pharmaceuticals told The Fish Site.

Zymergen, the company that describes themselves as “a science and material innovation company,” has also been jumping on the testing bandwagon, helping to build and scale up testing alongside Curative Medical. Separately, Zymergen also lent their manpower and equipment to the Chan Zuckerburg Biohub.

There are other companies making small, but significant efforts. Because BIO recognizes that so many of our members need each other, we created a hub where our members across health, agriculture, and environmental sectors are connecting with each other for supplies, ideas, capacity, and other materials.

To learn more about what is happening across agricultural, environmental, and industrial biotech in the time of coronavirus visit biotech.org/coronavirus.