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Smiths ramps up syringe production in preparation for COVID vaccine

As the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine continues, one local manufacturer is already preparing for what comes next.

Smiths Medical, a Minneapolis-based medical supplies producer with a facility in Keene, announced last month that it is partnering with the federal government to produce hypodermic instruments that will be used to deliver a vaccine once one is approved. The project is expected to create at least 60 jobs at the Keene site over the next year and a half.

On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., participated in a teleconference with Smiths Medical staff to discuss the progress on the project, which is already underway.

"As we think about what the long-term impact is of the coronavirus, and how do we get back to normal … the vaccine seems to be a critical piece of that," Shaheen said during the call. "And making sure that we can actually distribute the vaccine once we get it is really critical."

Smiths is working with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and the Department of Defense's Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defense to produce millions of syringe and needle units in Keene over the next 18 months, according to a July 15 news release from the company. The original order was for 78.6 million units, though the company has plans to produce an additional 73 million as part of the contract.

In addition, the government is contributing $20 million to a $38 million capital expansion project that will allow Smiths’ Keene branch to boost production. The money will enable Smiths to install an automated machine that will increase output.

Smiths has already produced 5.6 million syringes under the federal deal and is gearing up to begin production on the remaining 73 million from the original order, Darren Hodkinson, regional operations manager, said during the teleconference. But thanks to the new machine, they’ll be able to make even more units.

"We’ve placed the order for new molding equipment and new automated assembly equipment," Hodkinson said. "That will kick in around September next year, and that will give us access to another 73 million."

He said the increased production capabilities will allow Smiths to create 60 to 100 new jobs over the next 18 months. The Keene facility currently employs 358 people and runs three shifts seven days a week.

Hodkinson said that number includes about 70 temporary employees at the Keene site. He said the recruitment efforts for the additional employees to be hired are largely centered around Keene now but may expand into the tristate area.

The goal, with the additional efficiency afforded by the automated machine, is to transition to a 24-hour, five-day operation. Hodkinson said the facility is aiming to produce 150 million units annually.

Shaheen commended Smiths Medical for its work on preparing for vaccine distribution and said she’s pleased the company has been able to move forward with the BARDA agreement.

"I think it’s very impressive that New Hampshire is such a critical piece of this response to the pandemic," she said. "Hopefully we will see a very positive outcome soon."