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  • Writer's pictureRobert A. Smith

Coronavirus Pfizer

While it’s no secret the Coronavirus pandemic has taken a sledgehammer to the economy, it’s also given American business an opportunity to do what it does best: Innovate.

Scores of businesses have done just that. Manufacturers are dropping what they normally produce to assemble masks, respirators, and personal protection gear. Silicon Valley types are developing apps and analytics software. While other concerns are tackling the virus head-on.

One such company is Pfizer. The Wall Street Journal reports the company is working on “a promising potential treatment” for COVID-19 – a treatment it will test with patients as soon as this summer.

That’s not surprising considering how Pfizer became a health sciences giant it is today. In 1941, it responded to a similar emergency, answering its government’s call for help.

The year was 1941. Pfizer was a small East coast company known for vitamins and the citric acid it made on a large scale for Coca-Cola. In Washington D.C., the U.S. government was preparing for war, anticipating a need for penicillin – lots of it – for soldiers and sailors who would soon be pressed into combat.

Penicillin’s infection-fighting powers had been known since 1928, when it was first synthesized in a lab. Unfortunately, that’s where it remained -- in laboratories, where tiny bacterial cultures were grown. In fact, half the U.S. penicillin supply was used to treat a single patient for blood poisoning.

That’s when President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked universities and industry to make penicillin on a large scale. When Pfizer chemists Jasper Kane and John McKeen heard the challenge, they thought of deep tank fermentation – the process they were using to produce hundreds of gallons of citric acid for Coca-Cola. Why not grow penicillin that way too? So, they got to work. Four months later, Pfizer was producing penicillin on an industrial scale in a converted Brooklyn ice plant. And two years after that, on June 6, 1944, every one of the 150,000 Allied soldiers landing in Normandy on D-Day carried a penicillin injection kit.

Most came from Pfizer.

Dropping everything to innovate launched Pfizer on course to become a $50 billion dollar health-sciences giant. And it all started by re-purposing an existing process, something that had everyone marveling, “Now Why Didn’t I Think of That?”

Let’s hope similar innovation helps us conquer COVID-19.

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