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Greenville Business Magazine

Pandemic presents life sciences opportunities, SC panel says

Jul 17, 2020 10:19AM ● By David Dykes

By Liv Osby

South Carolina is going in the wrong direction when it comes to the coronavirus as the number of new cases rises every day.

But the pandemic has presented opportunities that could boost the state’s life sciences industries, leading to good jobs and a stronger economy while ensuring that needed supplies are manufactured here. 

Those were the conclusions of state leaders at a virtual panel discussion Thursday hosted by SCBIO, which bills itself as the state’s lead life sciences industry economic development organization.  

The panel was assembled to talk about safely reopening the economy and future economic development strategies for the life sciences and health care industries.

By 3 p.m. Thursday, the Department of Health and Environmental Control reported South Carolina had logged 63,880 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 1,053 deaths.

“We are looking at this upward trend with great concern,” said Dr. Linda Bell, state epidemiologist with DHEC and a member of the panel that also featured Republicans Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette, state Sen. Thomas Alexander of Walhalla and state Rep. G. Murrell Smith Jr. of Sumter.

“We should be aware that through our entire pandemic experience, about 37 percent (of cases) were reported in the last 14 days. So, we’re not going in the direction we want to go in,” Bell said. “And now 45 of 46 counties are on an upward trend based on cases reported in the last 14 days.” 

While many businesses have taken a terrible economic hit, life sciences is one sector that’s actually grown during the pandemic, stepping up to increase coronavirus testing, provide hand sanitizer and manufacture personal protective equipment, said Smith.

“This industry is recession-proof, by and large, and it brings good high-paying jobs to the citizens of South Carolina and brings money into our community,” he said. “We need to bring more (biotech) companies to South Carolina. These are the types of jobs we want in South Carolina.”

Evette said the pandemic has shone a spotlight on the importance of the life sciences industry, and the need to produce needed supplies like face masks in the U.S. The state can play an important role in that, she said. 

“We need to get some of these things back on U.S. soil … that we had let go of years ago,” she said. “We can make life sciences one of the leading industries here in South Carolina. And I don't think that's a pipe dream. We have the know-how and the ability to make this a thriving environment.” 

Alexander said the industry already provides jobs in virtually every county in the state, adding that there are unlimited economic development opportunities around Covid-19 that the state needs to support, for instance, giving state businesses preference in bidding on contracts.

“We are really at a forefront of the opportunity to go to the next level with life sciences here in South Carolina and we need to be your partners ... (to) make you all successful,” he said. 

“We’ve got a lot of work to do as a team. But I see a bright future with life sciences in South Carolina and I look forward to having additional locations throughout the state.”

Including pharmaceutical companies and research labs, there are more than 650 life science businesses in the state representing $12 billion economic impact, said SCBIO CEO Sam Konduros. 

Their role expanded dramatically with the virus, providing a “silver lining” to the economic and health care challenges the pandemic posed, he said.

“In the midst of extraordinary challenges … many businesses rapidly adapted and increased efficiencies,” he said. “We now have an unprecedented opportunity to bolster this thriving industry … (and) forge a pathway to a brighter future.”

Asked what South Carolinians can do to help, Bell called on citizens to physically distance and wear masks, adding there is abundant research showing they work.

After the lifting of restrictions around Memorial Day weekend, the state began to see a steady upward curve and then a rapid escalation, leading to South Carolina now ranking 6th nationally in rate of disease per 100,000 population, she said. 

“This conveys what interventions can do and what the implications are when don't follow guidance,” she said. “We can be in a completely different place in four to six weeks if South Carolinians will practice physical distancing and use masks.”