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'Doesn't just happen with the flip of a switch' | As leaders point to supply problems, Maryland COVID vaccine manufacturer talks complicated process

Emergent BioSolutions is working to produce millions of doses of the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines in its Baltimore facility.

BALTIMORE — Now, as thousands of people eligible to get the vaccine have struggled to find appointments, local to federal leaders point to supply as the bottleneck. But a vaccine supplier for Maryland tells WUSA9 it's not a simple task to increase production even more. He said Emergent's own Baltimore facility is already almost operating at top capacity.

Once Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca receive the FDA's approval for their COVID-19 vaccines, a Maryland company will be producing the bulk of the doses.

Emergent BioSolutions is that company. It's headquartered in Gaithersburg, has more than 300 employees working on both vaccines in its Baltimore Bayview facility...nearly 24/7, the EVP of Manufacturing and Technical Operations, Sean Kirk said.

“I’ve been in this industry a long time, and I can assure you, there’s tremendous level of requirements and tremendous levels of control to ensure the safety and integrity of the products we produce and a tremendous amount of compliance, procedures, regulations, regulatory oversight that’s just not easily built overnight," Kirk said. "It just doesn’t happen. I believe that the industry is doing the best that it can. I believe the government is doing the best that it can, but quite frankly, it just doesn’t happen with the flip of a switch.”

Kirk asks for patience as his employees -- and manufacturers throughout the country -- work diligently to pump out as many doses as quickly as they can.

Kirk said they will be producing hundreds of millions of doses by the end of the year. The vaccine Emergent produces will be finished and packaged in vials by a final distributor to be delivered to the public.

Once the government awarded Emergent the contract to manufacture these COVID-19 vaccines, Kirk said they had to hire hundreds of employees and purchase more equipment to scale up operations.

RELATED: With Marylanders still frustrated by vaccination appointments, lawmakers are pushing for new solutions

Kirk said this isn't Emergent's first rodeo with mass vaccine production. He said the company helped respond to the Ebola and Zika virus crises -- and produces an anthrax antidote, smallpox vaccine, and even Narcan (used to treat narcotic overdoses). Still -- responding to COVID-19 has been the company's biggest response yet.

“I get it. I’m a father, I’m a husband, I’ve got a family. I’m living COVID-19 24-7. I work COVID-19. I live COVID-19 just like everyone else does at home. Heck, I’ve had COVID-19 in December," Kirk said. "We’re not manufacturing cars here. We’re not manufacturing toasters. We’re manufacturing complex biologic processes, very complicated. We’re producing viral vectors on top of living organisms... and that can be finicky, it can be challenging."

RELATED: 'It's a mission-critical type of situation' | COVID-19 vaccine produced in Maryland lab

Credit: Emergent BioSolutions
Maryland-based Emergent BioSolutions is manufacturing the bulk of the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca COVID vaccines.

Adding to the challenge -- despite Emergent's stringent safety protocols, COVID-19 has impacted its operations periodically, with some infections that have required contact tracing and quarantines. So, his team fought hard to get access to the vaccine for their employees -- and just started administering inoculations this past Monday.

It's a move that Kirk said has faced some criticism, as multiple groups, like teachers and grocery store workers have struggled to gain access to appointments. But, he said their employees are a critical cog in the machine to keep the entire country safe and need to be protected.

"Society can’t afford for our manufacturing facility to be down for a prolonged period of time and have a depression in the supply of millions of doses to the U.S. population," he said.

Kirk shares the American public's goal: end the pandemic as quickly as possible.

"We’re going to beat this thing," he said. "We just need time and a little patience, but we’re going to get there.”

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