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Nicklaus: 'How tough a problem do you want?' MilliporeSigma's St. Louis workers are on front line of coronavirus fight

Nicklaus: 'How tough a problem do you want?' MilliporeSigma's St. Louis workers are on front line of coronavirus fight

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In the race to develop drugs and vaccines for COVID-19, MilliporeSigma rarely grabs any headlines, but it’s a critical supplier to companies that do.

When you read about a lab working on a treatment for the coronavirus-caused disease, chances are good that it’s using reagents, or substances that cause chemical reactions, made by MilliporeSigma in St. Louis. Many vaccine scientists are using cell lines and culture media — the broth in which cells are grown — developed here in MilliporeSigma labs.

And the coronavirus tests that are being produced and analyzed by the millions? Those depend on a long list of MilliporeSigma products, several of which are made in St. Louis.

One class of products, short stretches of DNA called oligonucleotides, had been such slow sellers that MilliporeSigma considered shutting the line down, Chief Executive Udit Batra said in a video interview.

As the coronavirus pandemic spread, the company got calls from non-customers about oligos, as the product is known. Every maker of the now-common nasal-swab tests, which use a technology known as polymerase chain reaction, needed oligos to detect the presence of COVID-19.

All of a sudden, MilliporeSigma was increasing production instead of shutting the line down

Other coronavirus-related products have been in such demand that the company has had to ration them. “We went to our customers and said, ‘What do you need, when and why?’” Batra recounted. “This is not the type of conversation we would have had in the past.”

Customers with needs related to COVID-19 or other lifesaving work get priority, while others have to wait. “We would go to people with contracted items and say, ‘Sorry, these products are going to go for COVID,’” Batra said. “People understood that we had to reprioritize.”

MilliporeSigma also is increasing capacity where possible. A Massachusetts plant, which makes one of the products being rationed, will be expanded. New equipment will be added in St. Louis.

Employees realize that they’re on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus, Batra said: “We’re not a spectator in this sport at all.”

Some of the company’s coronavirus-fighting products didn’t exist five years ago, when German parent company Merck KGaA bought Sigma-Aldrich of St. Louis. A few of them were created by combining components made by the old Merck with products from Sigma’s portfolio.

The merger looks successful on several levels, both scientific and financial. MilliporeSigma — the life sciences business of Merck KGaA — reported 9% revenue growth last year, well above the industry average. In the first quarter, revenue grew 5.6% even as many academic research labs closed temporarily.

The St. Louis workforce has grown to 2,200 people from 1,800 under Sigma-Aldrich. Deborah Slagle, the St. Louis site leader, says the company is hiring and expects to keep growing.

Batra can spend several minutes reciting financial metrics, but he’s proudest of the way two strong corporate cultures have melded into one without dulling their innovative edge. The percentage of sales coming from new products has tripled since the merger.

“Our culture is about solving problems, and we focus on solving the toughest problems in life sciences in collaboration with the global scientific community,” Batra said. “When you look at COVID, how tough a problem do you want?”

When somebody, someday, finds a cure for COVID-19 and a vaccine to prevent it, it won’t be a MilliporeSigma scientist getting all the accolades. The company’s employees will be smiling anyway, knowing that the breakthrough wouldn’t have happened without them.

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