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WuXi STA breaks ground on Middletown pharma plant

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WuXi STA Pharmaceutical executives pose during a groundbreaking along Gov. John Carney (center), Middletown Mayor Ken Branner, Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long and Delaware Prosperity Partnership President and CEO Kurt Foreman on Aug. 16 in Middletown. | PHOTO COURTESY OF WUXI STA PHARMACEUTICAL

MIDDLETOWN – What is currently a soybean field will soon be turned into a state-of-the-art pharmaceutical production campus, as WuXi STA Pharmaceutical broke ground on its Middletown site Tuesday.

State and local officials along with company executives turned the first bit of soil at the site off Levels Road in a private ceremony Tuesday.

“This will be a major site for WuXi STA and even for [parent company] WuXi AppTec; we will continue to build out the site,” Dr. Minzhang Chen, the CEO of WuXi STA, told Delaware Business Times last week. “Currently, we’re planning to invest $500 million in the first phase and are targeting to hire about 500 people, so that’s no small task for us to get started.”

Shining reactors like these at WuXi STA’s San Diego site will likely be a part of the future Middletown site. | PHOTO COURTESY OF WUXI APPTEC

WuXi STA has started the permitting phase for its drug product building, which is one of four buildings slated for the first phase of development in a potentially seven-building campus, according to Dean Childers, who will be the site manager. The campus will provide formulation development, clinical and commercial drug product manufacturing services for a variety of oral and injectable dosage forms, as well as packaging, labeling, storage and distribution services for clinical trial materials and commercial drug products.

So far, inflation and supply chain issues have not pushed the company off of its construction schedule, with foundations set to be poured in September, Childers said. The production facility is scheduled to be completed in late 2024, with U.S. Food & Drug Administration qualification testing to follow thereafter and commercial operations anticipated to begin in 2025.

Like most construction projects these days though, WuXi STA has had to contend with a lengthier procurement process to stay on schedule, Childers noted.

“Electrical gear is anywhere between 12 and 18 months in order to receive it, so it’s definitely a challenge,” he told Delaware Business Times.

National firm Whiting-Turner, which has a Newark office, is serving as the project’s general contractor, with WuXi STA hoping to use as many local contractors as possible, although the specified nature of the work may limit some of the job possibilities.

The company has also begun discussions with Delaware universities and colleges, as well as state agencies about how to prepare the needed workforce for the site. While some research roles will require advanced degrees, there will also be plenty of skilled labor jobs that will require no special certifications, Childers said.

This farmland is set to become a major employer for New Castle County under a project by WuXi STA. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

In its state grant application, WuXi STA reported that the minimum salary would be around $40,000, equating to more than $19 an hour, while the average salary would be $65,000, indicating that there will be plenty of higher-wage earners. According to the application, the 479 jobs include 242 engineering or skilled labor jobs, 192 professional or managerial jobs, and 45 unskilled labor positions.

“We’re confident that we’ll be ready from the start to pull from the local community,” Childers said of the training efforts.

WuXi STA is part of a billion-dollar portfolio of companies owned by WuXi AppTec, is a 21-year-old, Shanghai-based global pharmaceutical, biopharmaceutical, and medical device company. Led by Chen, a former executive of Boston-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals, the company’s business model contracts with clients from early research stages all the way to commercialization of drugs. It already works with industry leaders like AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi, Abbvie and Lilly, among dozens of others.

“If you have a clinical trial, the patient needs a drug but there’s no way to buy that. So, we started making the drugs at the clinical stage and when the drug gets on the market, then we start making the commercial version. So, we’re involved in the whole lifecycle of the drug research and development,” Chen told DBT.

While the Middletown plant will produce finished, patient-ready drugs for both the clinical and commercial stages, it operates more than a half dozen other facilities in China and Europe. It recently opened a new manufacturing facility in China to produce large amounts of active pharmaceutical ingredients (API), the most important parts of drugs.

As of now, WuXi STA has a limited American footprint, with only a 4,200-square-foot research and development lab and manufacturing plant in San Diego currently active. Comparatively, the planned Delaware site would measure 1.74 million square feet.

Chen said that WuXi STA did look at a lot of sites around the country and region – notably, fellow WuXi AppTec subsidiary WuXi Advanced Therapies has a sizable presence in Philadelphia’s Navy Yard – but it chose Middletown because the infrastructure was ready and officials felt that all levels of government, from town up to the federal delegation, welcomed them with open arms.

After choosing Delaware, the COVID pandemic struck, and largely reaffirmed their strategy, Chen said.

“We need a more diversified supply chain covering all the major regions in the world,” he said. “We’re going to continue strengthening our platform and enable more continents to be able to develop innovative drugs for the benefit of patients.”

It also put their business model on display, as WuXi STA has helped its clients research a number of potential COVID vaccines and drug treatments, commercializing four of them – although Chen couldn’t disclose which ones.

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