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Already a major pharma producer, Delaware preps for big influx

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A team of workers make the active pharmaceutical ingredient for an AstraZeneca drug at the Newark-area plant. | PHOTO COURTESY OF ASTRAZENECA

The former soybean field in Middletown has been graded and the skeleton of a future major pharmaceutical production plant is slowly rising as WuXi STA prepares to launch a major presence in America.

In many ways, it represents a key part of the First State’s future as an emerging major market for biopharmaceutical research and development – but also manufacturing. For every life-saving cancer drug and everyday medical salve discovered, there is a plant somewhere that has to formulate, mix, press, packaging and ship it to consumers.

WuXi STA Pharmaceutical’s future Middletown production facility will be the largest pharmaceutical plant in the state, leading officials to boost training efforts. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

As a contract development and manufacturing organization (CDMO), WuXi will be manufacturing the drugs discovered by other companies for mass distribution. The $500 million plant that is part of the first phase of development on the 190-acre Middletown campus will employ upward of 500 people starting in early 2025.

For comparison, less than 30 minutes north, pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca’s 130-acre Newark-area production plant is currently the largest pharmaceutical plant in the state, where it employs about 300 people.

“WuXi is a massive opportunity [for Delaware], and certainly they moved here looking at the data of the population who they would be looking to recruit,” said Michael Fleming, president of the Delaware BioScience Association, the state’s industry group. “It’s certainly why it’s a priority for us to make sure that we’ve got both the training in place but also the recruitment.”

The U.S. gateway

AstraZeneca, with its American headquarters in Wilmington’s Fairfax suburbs, has been a major employer in Delaware for decades now, but few in the public likely realize the importance the state has in its production network.

AstraZeneca’s production plant near Newark is among its most important facilities in America, serving as a gateway to its global distribution. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

When the pharma companies Astra AB and the Zeneca Group PLC merged in the famous 1999 deal, the new British-Swiss company inherited a more than 50-year-old production plant off Old Baltimore Pike in the Glasgow area. It dates back to Stuart Pharmaceuticals, which made the indigestion remedy Mylanta a household name, and its baby blue color still adorns most of the facility’s façade and interior.

In the last two decades, AstraZeneca has invested more than $110 million in the Newark-area operation, upgrading machinery that creates 26 different medicines that reach more than 100 markets worldwide, representing $7 billion in sales.

The staff in Newark work in formulation, packaging, distribution and laboratory testing for quality control. Today, the plant is the home of production for four of AstraZeneca’s medicines – Arimidex, a breast cancer drug; Xigduo, a diabetes drug; and two versions of Seroquel, an antipsychotic. Another 22 medications are made there from active and inactive ingredients shipped to the site, while Newark serves as the company’s principal American distribution point.

“Basically, everything that AstraZeneca makes and is sold in the U.S. market comes through Newark,” said Shamus Whyte, the plant’s general manager.

The company is continuing to grow within its roughly 500,000-square-foot plant though, as it is investing $10 million this year to expand production of sachet packaging – think single-use drink mix packets – for Lokelma, a drug to treat excessive potassium.

“That is driving a lot of the growth on the site, and it will include substantial recruitment,” Whyte said, estimating AstraZeneca will hire at least 50 workers this year for the project.

Substantial need

While the state’s biopharmaceutical industry prepares for the influx of WuXi jobs on the horizon, it is already dealing with a workforce shortage.

In a Delaware BioScience Association survey of 18 employers last year, every respondent reported having open positions. Whyte said that AstraZeneca is looking to fill roles right now in its core production line as well as its planned sachet expansion.

Also looking to hire is Adesis, a mid-sized contract research organization in New Castle that supports the pharmaceutical and specialty chemical markets. Founder and CEO Andrew Cottone said his company is “in a growth mode,” and could add about a dozen degree and non-degree workers right now.

“We’re actively looking for positions but we’re struggling to do so,” he said, citing the power that workers have to leverage job offers right now, the lack of qualified technicians and the specialized nature of the work that Adesis does.

Synthesizing compounds in Adesis’ 100- to 1,000-liter reactors is a very different task than small batch synthesis in a research lab or even a mass production quantity of maybe 8,000 liters, Cottone explained. It’s led the company to rethink its hiring targets.

“We’re looking for a lot of the right fundamentals in our scientists, and then try and bring them in,” he added.

Adesis has taken to recruiting for applicants at universities around the country, making stops in Florida, Texas, Illinois and Massachusetts, Cottone said. It is also working with Delaware Technical Community College for newly trained technicians while also seeking to attract experienced technicians looking to make a change.

AstraZeneca Newark Delaware Shamus Whyte bioscience pharmaceutical

(L-R) Mike Vito, formulation process operator; Lori Eagle, senior process facilitator, and Shamus Whyte, general manager of AstraZeneca’s Newark plant, are among those who have been drawn to the biopharmaceutical manufacturing field. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

A new challenge

One such worker is Mike Vito, who joined AstraZeneca’s plant four years ago as a formulation process operator.

Vito had previously been laid off from operator jobs at the former Sunoco oil refinery and former DuPont Chambers Works plant when a staffing agency suggested he consider the pharma factory. It wasn’t something he had considered before – despite living across the street from the facility.

“I knew it was AstraZeneca, and I knew it was pharmaceuticals, but I didn’t know what they made here,” he recalled. “I didn’t even know what an operator here did when I applied for the job. I just saw operator, and that’s what I was for the last 15 years of my life.”

Vito was hired and has since worked in the formulation department, mixing batches of Seroquel and Arimidex in four 10-hour workdays that start at 4 a.m. He liked the work so much he even convinced his best friend to get a job at the plant too.

“You feel like you’re doing something that matters,” he said. “You can see it when it’s finished, and you can speak to the people who use what you’re making. It just feels good.”

Working with Vito at AstraZeneca’s plant is senior process facilitator Lori Eagle, who began as a typesetter in 1987 and has spent her career with the different iterations of the company. Although she spent some years at AstraZeneca’s Wilmington headquarters, she returned to the Newark plant where she now works in the coating department.

“The pace at a manufacturing site is certainly different. It can be addicting,” said Eagle, who was tapped by the company during the pandemic to help oversee production of its COVID vaccine at an Ohio plant.

Despite rising through the ranks, Eagle said she never felt the desire to leave AstraZeneca, citing its financial support of her college education, its ample internal opportunities and the strong workforce that supports each other.

Plans for support

As the bioscience industry seeks to bridge its workforce shortage, two of Delaware’s leading organizations supporting life science research and economic growth have jointly funded a coordinator on workforce development and university-industry relations.

AstraZeneca Newark Delaware bioscience pharmaceutical

Manufacturing in the biosciences often appears more like laboratory work, such as this granulated formulation process in Newark. | PHOTO COURTESY OF ASTRAZENECA

Katie Lakofsky, a trained biologist who spent time at Delaware Technical Community College and the University of Delaware, has spent the last few months meeting with industry leaders and visiting sites in other states to find ideas for improvements.

She is now looking at strengthening industry-academia partnerships to create training pathways for entry-level technician jobs along with highlighting a talent pipeline from universities to local employers. One positive milestone is that Del Tech will begin offering a 150-hour training program for the industry this spring.

Another local idea that Lakofsky has investigated is Zip Code Wilmington, the nonprofit coding boot camp that has created a pipeline of new hires for big banks in need of tech talent. A similar program set up for bioscience manufacturing could help those with some manufacturing experience get up to speed for open roles in the industry, cutting onboarding costs for employers and creating an easy entryway into the industry, Lakofsky said.

“The good news is there are a lot of overlapping skill sets for different types of careers that are needed,” she noted.

While classroom settings for more advanced bioscience manufacturing, such as working on bioreactors, could be an expensive prospect, Lakofsky believes that could be a goal to work toward as it could help attract additional employers seeking such trained employees. She’s encouraged by the amount of collaboration and partnership that she’s seen across the state.

“I think what’s most exciting about what’s happening right now in our state is there is really this drive and desire to move this forward. There’s a prime opportunity for us all to connect and work towards this common goal together. I don’t know if you would have seen that five years ago,” she said.

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