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UPMC confident about vaccine production approval

Luis Fábregas
| Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011

After seven years as chief legal counsel at health giant UPMC, former federal judge Robert J. Cindrich had one important piece of business to finish.

One of his pet projects involved an ambitious proposal to create a one-of-a-kind vaccine factory in Western Pennsylvania that could create 1,000 jobs. Cindrich, who wanted to step down from his demanding job, felt an obligation to stay until he wrapped up the vaccine project.

"I want to finish this," said Cindrich, 67, who served as a judge in the U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh for 10 years. "Just to hand it over without any kind of transition would not have been good."

While he eventually gave up his title, Cindrich stayed on as a special adviser in the office of UPMC President Jeffrey Romoff. He is committed to staying on until the federal government, which would pay for half the cost of the project, makes a final decision about the vaccine factory.

That could happen soon. Officials with the Department of Health and Human Services say they will formally request proposals for special vaccine centers by March.

The proposals will be due 90 days later, and contract awards could be made by the end of the year, said Robin Robinson, director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a federal agency that develops and provides medical countermeasures to man-made and natural threats such as chemical and biological weapons.

Those threats -- and the ability to respond in a timely fashion -- have worried the Obama administration since the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. Federal officials want to create centers that can develop and manufacture vaccines against chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear threats. They want the centers to also be able to produce vaccines in an emergency against pandemic influenza or other health threats.

Federal officials would not name the interested organizations. But Cindrich believes UPMC's proposal is solid, meticulously crafted by a carefully selected team of experts. The team includes four high-profile partners: GE Healthcare, IBM, drug maker Merck & Co., and Ohio-based Battelle.

UPMC and its partners have picked the site of the former LTV steel mill in Hazelwood as the factory's potential location. The facility would use up to 30 acres of the 178-acre site, located between Second Avenue and the Monongahela River.

The site has received the blessing of Congressional leaders, including U.S. Reps. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, and Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, and Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton.

Altmire said UPMC's proposal likely will receive great attention because UPMC would pay 51 percent of the $600 million to $800 million cost for the facility. The government would pay the rest.

HHS has set aside $478 million to partner with private entities for this type of program, Robinson said.

"The ability of UPMC to bring some money of their own to the table, I think made the proposal very attractive," Altmire said.

UPMC and community leaders have touted the factory's potential impact on the economy. They've estimated the project would create about 1,000 jobs and thousands more could follow if other companies move to the region to operate near the factory.

One hurdle could derail the project.

Federal officials may place emphasis on the production of influenza vaccines, something UPMC is hesitant to do.

"We were concerned that there's too much focus on influenza vaccine," Cindrich said. "We'd like to see more emphasis on medical countermeasures for bioterrorism."

Additional Information:

How much do they make?

Occupation: Special adviser, office of the president, UPMC

Pay: $1.8 million

Source: IRS documents

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