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Plans for commercial scale vaccine manufacturing facility moving forward near Hamilton

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Standing next to the grass-covered pasture on the edge of Hamilton that will someday house a commercial-scale vaccine manufacturing facility, Tonix Pharmaceuticals CEO Dr. Seth Lederman said the pandemic offered this country a lot to consider.

“One of the things we learned during the pandemic is that we need more domestic capability to manufacture complex biologics,” Lederman said. “The pandemic really showed how deficient the United States is in that regard.”

Tonix Pharmaceuticals wants to be a leader in helping change that. The facility it plans to build in Hamilton will play a big role in making that happen.

“We’re also generally interested in pandemic preparedness,” Lederman said. “This won’t be the last pandemic. It won’t be the last different kind of virus that we have to deal with.”

On Thursday, Lederman sat down with a group of local officials to talk about the future facility and how it fits into a longstanding effort to turn western Montana into a biotech corridor.

With its close proximity to the world-renowned research facility at Rocky Mountain Laboratories and private GlaxoSmithKline adjuvant facility that recently invested $100 million to expand its biotech capabilities, Lederman said Hamilton is unique from a vaccine developer's point of view.

“I don’t think there is any other place quite like it in the United States,” he said.

Tonix’s new manufacturing site will be constructed on 44 acres of land designated as a Target Economic Development District, which allows tax money generated at the site to be used to build infrastructure in the 420-acre district.

The district is outside Hamilton's city limits. The Ravalli County Commission and Hamilton City Council worked together to develop a plan that made the district possible.

The first part of the infrastructure improvement project will get underway this year with the extension of a sewer line. The company hopes to break ground on the facility next year. The size of the building and the number of people who will work there is still being determined.

“This is an unprecedented opportunity for economic development in Montana, and Ravalli County in particular,” said Ravalli County Economic Development Authority executive director Julie Foster. “We’re excited that we were able to work in collaboration with the city, county and folks at Tonix to move this project forward and bring more good jobs to the Bitterroot Valley.”

Ravalli County Commissioner Greg Chilcott said he looks forward to the partnerships that are being built and the potential for future economic growth in the district as infrastructure becomes available to others.

“There’s been a lot of work that went into creating this,” Chilcott said. “The catalyst was Julie (Foster) and the RCEDA … They brought us all to the table and showcased Ravalli County, Hamilton, Montana as a good place to do business. We are excited at becoming a hub for pharmaceuticals, science, bio-science, and research facilities.”

“I think we are going to see a real symbiotic relationship develop between those firms,” he said.

Chilcott acknowledged that housing is going to be a challenge.

“The pressure we’ve seen in the Bitterroot over the last 18 months has been pretty extraordinary,” he said. “We’re looking for solutions to that and we’ll find them.”

One possibility may be building workplace housing in the Target Economic Development District.

Having a new business that creates good-paying jobs is also a step in the right direction, said RCEDA Board President Ryan Oster.

“From a historical perspective — since I was a kid — I’ve heard people say that my kids will never be able to stay here,” Oster said. “They say there’s nothing for their kids here … we’ve worked very hard for a lot of years to make this a possibility.”

“It all started with people trying to replace the economy we lost,” he said. “The natural resources economy, the timber. To make it possible for my kids to have an opportunity to stay here. This is a very unique place. People want to stay. It’s also easy to recruit people to come live here if there are good jobs.”

Rocky Mountain Labs Associate Director Dr. Marshall Bloom was assigned to the Hamilton lab 50 years ago and was struck by its long history of working on countermeasures to infectious diseases and his ability to work alongside some of the finest researchers in the country.

“I couldn’t imagine working anyplace better,” Bloom said. “To be able to do that kind of Rockefeller-type research in an environment like western Montana and the Bitterroot Valley. It’s really incredible.”

“Recruiting top-notch scientists and support staff is extremely easy because the high-quality scientific environment at the lab is complemented by a high-quality living environment,” he said. “Many of our trainees would be more than eager to be able to stay in the area and work here.”

When the Tonix facility is completed, the company intends to develop and produce its vaccine candidates, including a potential COVID-19 vaccine.

“The Tonix platform is based on a replicating but harmless virus,” Bloom said. “It’s a novel and very promising technology. I think over the course of the pandemic, it’s become clear that a variety of vaccine platforms offer different strategies for immunization.”

With this first cornerstone soon to be in place, Hamilton Mayor Dominic Farrenkopf expects to see more growth in the Target Economic Development District.

“It’s almost like we’ve taken that proverbial pebble, dropped it in the pond, and we’ll see those gentle ripples that will stir the rest of the pond,” Farrenkopf said. “I have a bird feeder in my yard. I love watching the birds. You never know what bird is going to come next.”

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