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Washington Post: Montgomery County to spend $500,000 on push for global pandemic center

To read the original story from Rebecca Tan on the Washington Post, please click here.

May 4, 2021 at 3:50 p.m. EDT

An ambitious push to create a “Global Pandemic Center” in suburban Maryland got a $500,000 boost Tuesday from the Montgomery County Council, which said the project could help drive the county’s post-pandemic economic recovery and foster resilience against the next major health crisis.

Spearheaded by the regional nonprofit Connected DMV, the center would involve scientists and policymakers from across the globe but operate primarily from the D.C. region, with a likely headquarters in Montgomery.

It would “identify and launch strategic projects needed to advance pandemic avoidance and preparedness,” Connected DMV said in its pitch to the council, including a $2 billion flagship initiative, titled “AHEAD 100,” that would stockpile monoclonal antibodies — laboratory-made treatments — for 100 pathogens most likely to cause global pandemics.

“We were the first place [in Maryland] hit by this covid-19 initially, and we paid a heavy price,” Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said in an interview Tuesday, citing the county’s high death toll during the first part of the pandemic. “Anything we can do to avoid being that off-guard is going to be worthwhile.”

The county dollars, which are coming out of its general reserves, will go toward Connected DMV’s $2.5 million “strategy phase” to secure federal support, private sector partnerships and other resources needed to launch “AHEAD 100.”

Other early contributors include the state of Maryland and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said Connected DMV chief executive Stu Solomon. The organization hopes to nail down a strategic plan by the end of August.

Both Solomon and Montgomery officials said they see they see the suburb of 1 million as an ideal location for the center, given its proximity to the nation’s capital and its vibrant life sciences sector. But county council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large), who sponsored the resolution to fund the initiative, added that any decision about whether to launch and where to locate the center will rely in part on the federal government and other major financial backers.

It’s not a “done deal” quite yet, Riemer said.

Officials say the center would be a boon for Montgomery’s economic growth, which has stagnated in recent years and lagged behind both the District and Northern Virginia.

Home to the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, as well as several large pharmaceutical companies, Montgomery has tried to position itself as a hub for the growing life sciences and biotechnology industries.

During the pandemic, local officials have repeatedly noted that four companies that received funding for the federal government’s vaccine initiative, Operation Warp Speed, have bases in Montgomery.

Becoming the site of a Global Pandemic Center, Elrich said, could help attract other cutting-edge research companies. His administration last year entered an agreement with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to establish a life sciences campus next to White Flint metro station, with infrastructure to support a mix of start-ups, tech companies and research institutions. The search for a lead developer is ongoing.

“To the extent that it attracts other businesses here, [a pandemic center] is going to grow the county’s tax base and provide good, high-paying jobs,” Elrich said.

Formed in 2019 to coordinate regional economic growth, Connected DMV pivoted last year to address the social and economic devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 20,000 residents in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

The pandemic center is one of 12 major proposals the organization’s task force outlined in a report released in December; others include cross-jurisdictional “resiliency exercises” and a joint contact-tracing system.

“There are a lot of pieces that have to come together, but we’re moving with all due speed,” Connected DMV chief strategic officer Matt Erskine said about the pandemic center. “The whole world and certainly this region has lived through a pandemic … And it’s clear that this is something that we definitely don’t want to live through again.”


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