Ellume COVID test plant in Frederick starting to add automation to manufacturing

Five months after the Australian-based biopharmaceutical company Ellume opened its first U.S. location in Frederick, the facility is scaling up its production of at-home COVID-19 tests by starting to automate the manufacturing process.

U.S. Rep. David Trone and U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin visited the sprawling campus along Executive Way this month for a tour of the company’s production capabilities and a town hall meeting with its employees.

They were joined by Laurie Locascio, director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. NIST runs the Maryland Manufacturing Extension Partnership in Gaithersburg, which helps manufacturers in the state — like Ellume — operate more efficiently, grow and create more jobs.

Last February, Ellume announced a $231.8 million agreement with the U.S. Department of Defense, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to establish a manufacturing plant in America.

Under the agreement, the company promised to provide the federal government with 8.5 million COVID-19 tests, said Sean Kirk, chief operations officer for Ellume.

Since the company started production at its facility in Frederick in March, the plant has produced about 1.2 million tests, Kirk said. Ellume’s manufacturing facility in Australia has provided the U.S. government with about 5 million tests.

Eventually, the company plans to meet U.S. demand for tests solely from its Frederick facility, Kirk said.

Manual production is currently at the heart of the American plant’s manufacturing activity. On their tour, Cardin, Van Hollen and Trone watched as rows of workers — all wearing hair nets and blue lab coats — assembled the parts needed for the tests.

But Ellume is making steps toward automating production. The company now has three automated manufacturing lines, with another one being finalized, Kirk said. And by the end of the year, it plans to add 16 more.

The plant is slowly increasing its production speed, but Ellume needs to balance the supply of tests with demand for them. Since the federal government has been providing at-home tests for free, Kirk explained to Trone, fewer people are willing to purchase tests at a retail pharmacy.

There’s an option in Ellume’s current contract to provide the U.S. government with about 3 million additional tests, and the company is in “active conversation” with officials to do so, Kirk said.

Though the company’s Frederick facility is currently only manufacturing COVID-19 tests, on Tuesday, Cardin expressed hope the plant would bolster the country’s response to future pandemics and infectious disease outbreaks.

He and Van Hollen started their day at the White House, where they watched President Joe Biden sign a bill into law that authorized $52 billion in subsidies to support domestic semiconductor production and research.

Although the new law focuses on computer chips, it’s also important to bring the manufacturing of health care products “home,” Van Hollen said. Producing such products in America means the country is less reliant on the global supply chain, which has been greatly disrupted during the pandemic.

Right now, some people want to believe the pandemic is over, and go on with their lives, Trone said. But the country can’t afford to do that. The government must continue funding testing and vaccination efforts, he said.

“We can’t put our heads in the sand,” he said.

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