System Chancellor Sharp discusses designation of the Texas A&M as a national biosecurity center

Desiree Lopez

Editor’s note: This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Texas A&M University System has been designated as one of three national biosecurity centers joining Maryland and North Carolina.

The Center for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing at A&M will work to manufacture drugs as well as fight pandemics and bioterrorism. It is expected to become fully operational by Dec. 2015 and upon completion will work toward researching and developing new vaccines and therapies.

The Daily Texan spoke with A&M System chancellor John Sharp about the new grant for the biosecurity center and the effects it will have on not only the university but all of the collaborators and Texas as a whole.

Daily Texan: What is the significance of U.S. biosecurity centers in this day and age?
John Sharp: Well, it’s the next war unfortunately, either against nature or against terrorism. Scientists know and have been saying it for years, that we are going to have an event sometime in the future that is a pandemic. We don’t know if it’s going to be H1N1 or bird flu or what it is, but that it’s going to kill an estimated 80 million people just like the one that occurred in the early part of last century that killed 30 or 40 million people. Just like the movie “Contagion,” half of it is true, it is going to happen, but the second half is false. There is no response to it that will keep that many people from dying. Of course the other factor is bioterrorism of man-made agents. Either way there is no response in this country to figure it out in a timely manner so the centers have come into play as a sole purpose of aid when a disease, agent or whatever it is occurs. The first part is developing a vaccine, then the second part is producing hundreds of millions of vaccines in a very short period of time.

DT: Texas A&M began placing a bid for the biosecurity center in mid to late March of last year. What was the process like, and how did A&M prepare for the bid?
Sharp: [Brett Giroir, vice chancellor for strategic initiatives] went to the ETF committee to convince them that they needed to make an investment in the National Center for Therapeutics Manufacturing. Here on the A&M campus, the ETF governor and lieutenant governor speaker and ETF committee agreed to do that and that is also being used in conjunction with UT’s MD Anderson, using that facility for cancer research. So by having that in place it gave Texas a big leg up, in my opinion, to getting the whole grant because we had something that quite frankly no one else had.

DT: Texas A&M had announced potential partners for the project. Now the grant has been awarded and the official team was announced — how was this team assembled? Did the other various schools and pharmaceutical companies approach A&M or vice versa?
Sharp: It was both ways. We were approached by some and some we approached when we saw someone that was really a superstar in this particular category. It was kind of mutual actually, and of course one of our partners in this grant process in the private sector is GlaxoSmithKline. Each one of the three centers has at least one drug company that it was partnered with. I’m not sure if we approached them or they approached us. Probably we approached them when we decided that we were going to go after the grant. But of course nobody really remembers these things.

DT: What does this biosecurity center mean for the campus and the staff with A&M’s emergence as a pharmaceutical manufacturing leader?
Sharp: It is a game changer in that respect, not just for the campus but for Texas because we have become almost instantly the third coast for pharmaceutical manufacturing and research. We fully expect large companies to move significant parts of their operations from other parts of the world to here. That center will obviously have a lot of collaboration with our chemists and physicists, particularly with our engineers in the biomedical department, and because we already have the vet school it is also a big part of that. It would have been very difficult to get this without the vet school because so many of this involves the disease of animals. It will create a thousand jobs right off the bat just in the construction phase, that’s without counting the jobs that will move here to become a part of it.

DT: Some people have compared this new construction to NASA being based in Houston. What is drawing people to make this comparison?
Sharp: I think what is being said is that it’s one of the largest grants to come to Texas since NASA and I think the comparison is accurate in that there will be tons of private sector interests in what goes on with regards to this research and the industries and spin-offs that occur with that.

DT: To my understanding, you were once Gov. Rick Perry’s democratic rival and, moreover, it is a big deal for President Barack Obama to give this new grant to Texas and the three other locations during an election year,. What is the political bipartisan significance of this biosecurity center coming to Texas?
Sharp: It was almost a complete bipartisan effort, it would not have happened without Perry and it would not have happened without Obama and I think what happened with all the rancor and everything that occurs in Congress is that when it comes to defense, we just don’t do the partisan stuff no matter what kind of war it is — you don’t want to be seen on the side of risking lives by stopping a project like this. I think this was too important and I think the Obama administration played it right down the middle and I think Gov. Perry did the same. On top of that we have a citizens committee that is excellent. It was chaired by Alexa Wesner who is in Austin and she became one of our most avid salesmen. We had other people like Larry Faulkner, former president of the University of Texas who was on the committee and absolutely valuable to it, and we just had a lot of people who had a lot of influence and were a large key. Best I could tell, the partisanship never entered into this process, I think it was just good people that made sure that didn’t happen.

DT: If a pandemic like H1N1 were to emerge again, would Texas be the first to receive the vaccines because we are within the vicinity?
Sharp: I sure hope it doesn’t occur within the next three years while we are getting this built, but yes, if it occurs, ground zero for the solution to that problem is going to be right here.