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Can Virginia offer a solution to the affordable drug crisis?

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VPM News Focal Point
Dr. Frank Gupton, CEO of VCU’s Medicines for all Institute, discusses his Richmond-based pharmaceutical company Phlow.

An initiative aimed at producing low-cost, generic drugs could put central Virginia on the map for advanced pharmaceutical manufacturing. Dr. Frank Gupton is the co-founder of Phlow, the drug-making arm of multi-million-dollar project focused on creating a stockpile of essential drugs in the United States.


BILLY SHIELDS: The cost of prescription drugs is so high that a CDC report found more than 9 million Americans said they've had to skip doses or take less medicine than prescribed. But in Virginia, there's a new project underway meant to help lower drug costs. Joining us today is Dr. Frank Gupton, CEO of VCU's Medicines for All Institute. He's also co-founder of a Richmond based pharmaceutical company called Phlow.

What are some of the causes for those high prescription drug costs?

DR. FRANK GUPTON: If you look at the generic drugs which is what we're focused on right now where approximately 80% of all the drugs consumed in the United States are generic drugs, sometimes you get into a situation where you get into a single supplier situation and then the price skyrockets because you don't have a competitive marketplace to be able to produce to sell the materials into. So that's for generic drugs that's probably one of the most common scenarios.

As well as a shortage that's occurred across the spectrum of drugs over the last 10 or 15 years. This issue about drug shortages and making them affordable is it's a problem that's been around for quite a while. The fact that the COVID epidemic came on board really shined a light on the problem and the vulnerabilities that we currently have.

BILLY SHIELDS: What effect did the pandemic have on drug manufacturing?

DR. FRANK GUPTON: In order to be able to sell the product you have to have the product to sell. And so, the shortage created this situation where there weren't drugs available at any cost. And it was an end-to-end problem because it wasn't just the formulated product or the, even the active ingredient was even the starting materials to make the drugs. All of these things are required in order to be able to have a robust supply chain. And we weren't able to sustain that because some of those starting materials were made in China some of 'em were made in India, some of the active ingredients were produced in other parts of the world, and then the finished dosage parts of the product would be also produced anywhere.

So you can see that when you start limiting the ability to transfer materials across countries due to the pandemic, you could have a shortage that would occur as a result of any of these individual components to the supply chain being unavailable.

BILLY SHIELDS: Okay, so explain what Phlow is.

DR. FRANK GUPTON: Phlow is a company that was started with the idea of being able to provide access to these essential drugs that were needed during the pandemic, but also to provide a platform for new technology so that we could actually produce these drugs more cost effectively in the United States. One of the reasons why these pharmaceutical manufacturing operations went overseas is because they were very labor intensive.

And so, one of the things we've done is technology that would allow us to produce in a more automated fashion with lower labor costs. So that then creates a level playing field against countries that have lower labor cost infrastructure. The other thing that we're doing is ensuring that the carbon footprints for these drugs are more easily addressed because a lot of the pharma processes generate huge amounts of carbon waste.

And that, you know, when it's overseas, you don't see it but when you're producing it here in the United States it could become an issue. So we've dramatically reduced a lot of the waste generation and these processes as a result of making them more efficiently.

BILLY SHIELDS: Could you also offer an overview of the project that you're working on in the region? The overall project.

DR. FRANK GUPTON: We’ve actually been working for the last 15 years or so with the Gates Foundation, trying to figure out how we can apply these same principles to HIV, malaria and tuberculosis drugs and COVID drugs. So we've been very successful in that space but we recognize that this is an area of research that most academic institutions and neither other research groups are not working on in the United States.

So, what we're hoping is that as a result of the successes that we've been able to develop in this region, that this will become like an epicenter for advanced pharmaceutical manufacturing in the United States here in Central Virginia.

BILLY SHIELDS: Okay. So why choose the Richmond Petersburg area as the location for this project?

DR. FRANK GUPTON: There was all the infrastructure was there and the idea was not just to make the active ingredients but to make the starting materials, the active ingredients and the formulated product at one site. And so, we had

established a partnership with a company that acquired this site a few years ago when the pandemic hit, and then used their infrastructure and the acreage on the site to build a second facility that would be able to make the active ingredients and a third facility to be able to produce the formulated product.

And there was enough acreage to do all of that plus establish a storage facility that allowed us to set up a reserve for these active ingredients in the event that we

had another pandemic or healthcare supply chain crisis.

BILLY SHIELDS: So when do you expect medicines to be on the market?

DR. FRANK GUPTON: We're actually beginning to manufacture these essential drugs as we speak.

BILLY SHIELDS: Dr. Gupton of Virginia Commonwealth University, thank you very much for your time.

DR. FRANK GUPTON: Thank you.


Billy Shields is a multimedia journalist with VPM News Focal Point.
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