By John McCurry
A number of South Carolina-based life science companies joined the battle against Covid-19 when the pandemic hit in early March. Prominent among this group is Charleston-based Vikor Scientific, a testing laboratory founded just over two years ago by entrepreneurs Shae Harrelson and Scotty Branch.
Vikor developed a Covid-19 test kit that is now widely used by nursing homes and other healthcare facilities across the nation. The test kit also tests for more than 40 other pathogens known to cause respiratory illness.
Covid's eruption coincided with the rapidly growing company's move to larger digs at Charleston's new WestEdge development early this spring. Vikor had quickly outgrown its space in the South Carolina Research Authority Innovation Center on Meeting street. Harrelson and Branch were eager to make the move, growing from 6,000 square feet to 22,000 square feet on the building's eighth floor, but the firm's growth quickly necessitated taking over most of the fourth floor as well.
"We were planning this move for a year, but we started the move right when Covid hit," Harrelson says. "We got into the building just in time. We developed our Covid test a few weeks after we moved in and started testing for Covid."
It took Vikor about four weeks to develop, validate and get its Covid-19 test to market. As of early June, 75,000 people have been tested, and testing continues at a rate of about 4,000 patients per day.
"Before we were testing for Covid, we were on a progressive incline, but this has propelled us onto a fast track," Harrelson says. "We have hired over 80 people since the inception of Covid. We have about 195 employees now. That includes our national sales team."
The decision early on during the pandemic to develop a Covid test proved fortuitous for Vikor. The mandated shutdowns across the country hit many labs hard, but Covid testing quickly became Vikor's dominant market.
"We wanted to help the country fight Covid," Branch says. "We wanted to help our local community by hiring more staff. We are a 24-hour lab that can't afford to be slowed down by shutdowns or by protests against the shutdowns. When FedEx has problems, we have problems. But if we had not made the commitment early to work on the Covid test, we would not be in a good place right now. Our hearts go out to a lot of labs and a lot of other businesses, because they have not had work for many weeks."
There are currently more than 400 life sciences companies operating in South Carolina, according to the South Carolina Dept. of Commerce. The sector has an annual economic impact of $11.4 billion. The industry is largely situated in the greater Greenville, Columbia and Charleston areas. Branch believes Charleston has good potential for continued growth as a biotech cluster, but there are challenges.
"We have to do things better," he says. "We are always looking ahead for more ways to change health care and we feel we can do that through the research. To get something from the research stage all the way to the market, there has to be some pieces added from what is around us, possibly through partnerships with MUSC. Now that we have laid this foundation with WestEdge, it will come down to whether the leadership will see it through."
Vikor's founders figure the Covid-19 business will continue to climb, with testing in mid-June reaching about 300,000 per day across the U.S. Branch says that effort needs to be tripled. The virus will continue to migrate. Covid-19 tests are now about 65% of Vikor's business.
"We are dealing with an at-risk population," he says. "We need to take the pressure off the hospitals. We are expecting the trend to continue to do a sharp rise, mainly because the states are pushing for testing of both employees and residents of long-term care facilities, so that is putting a lot of pressure on our organization to try to produce on a larger scale. I think we are doing a good job. We move at a swift pace."
While Covid testing is Vikor's current dominant business, the lab does a wide array of testing. Harrelson says the company's mission has been to focus on antibiotic stewardship.
"We built out customized pathogen panels for respiratory, urinary and gastro," she says. "We also built out a very large resistance gene panel to support our molecular pathogen panels, which at the time was pretty much unheard of, because it doesn't really get reimbursed. So a lot of labs are not going to pursue that. We felt that it is the only thing that would really complete the story to what was happening with the patient."
Harrelson says the technology that Vikor uses, which is primary chain reaction, is a methodology specific within 99% and accurate. It is a progressive technology that has advanced enough to provide a turnaround time within 12 to 24 hours of the specimen arriving at the lab.
"This includes the pathogen, the resistance genes that were carried into the body, and allows for a pharmacy overview and recommendation through our 24/7 labs that work throughout the night to try to get the report to the physician by 8 a.m. the next morning," she says.
Keeping an eye out for the next threat is a large part of what Vikor does. This includes both in the U.S. and internationally.
"Anytime you try to look ahead to what is next, it comes with a bit of controversy, because no one really understands your vision," Branch says. "That is what separates us. We are constantly trying to push the envelope of science to understand what is the next issue. We do big panels that do a deep dive into what is going on with the patient, to give the physicians every bit of information they need, without having to run multiple tests for multiple days, to make a proper, personalized decision for that patient. That's us in a nutshell."
Vikor is building out a second lab in Philadelphia. Its purpose will be to serve different markets at different times of the year. Vikor's founders say it is important to have a second site as a backup in the event of a hurricane hitting Charleston or a snowstorm in Philadelphia.