Awhile back I read an article that attempted to explain why elementary school kids are often ridiculously fascinated with dinosaurs. Kids who can't remember to hang up their coats have this odd ability to memorize all sorts of facts about dinosaurs, becoming walking encyclopedias about the eating habits of the stegosaurus.
However, I get the whole obsessed-with-a-topic thing. Take me for instance. I enjoy reading about diseases and vaccines. I find it really fascinating. The history. The politics. The drama. I like it.
So when I got an invite to go out and tour the GlaxoSmithKline vaccine facility in Marieta, Pennsylvania, I was (first) amazed that I would get an invite considering I am not a high-profile blogger and (second) thrilled to pieces. Add into the invite that GSK was paying for the entire trip (airfare, hotel, food), and it was like winning the lottery. Minus actual money in my pocket, of course.
I'll write more about getting to hang out with my fellow bloggers who toured with me, but let me focus right now on the GSK facility.
The facility looked like a high school. Really. Lovely landscape. Some pretty trees. Brick exterior. For legal reasons (their lawyers were quite nervous about us coming in the first place) we couldn't take pictures, but I've scavengered some photos off the Internet just so you get the idea.
We got to spend about four hours at the facility, and got to hear from several people who were involved in the research, managing, education, and production of vaccines. The first couple hours were filled with some passionate presentations--presentations really providing a different look at how I might have perceived a big pharmaceutical company. I was alternately giddy with joy when someone mentioned Maurice Hilleman ("I read about him!" I squealed in my most unprofessional geeky voice) and moved to tears when one of the doctors talked about how vaccines are a "miracle." Say what you will about vaccines, but they have certainly done a great deal for humanity.
We got to ask some questions, some of which they had answers for, some they didn't. We had been told there were some restrictions on what they could say--no specific products mentioned, no personal medical advice--and so it's hard to not come off as evasive when you can't answer specifically. As it turned out, all the questions I didn't get answers to, I was able to ask a different medical professional today in a phone interview. More on that another day.
After the presentations we got to tour the facility which I think was just FDA certified in August. Although the place isn't necessarily geared for the general public (in fact, they've never before had a general public touring group) they have inspiring posters on the wall, and even a hallway painted in bright yellows and greens. I asked a guy about it--why the posters and happy paint? were they expecting lots of touring groups--and he said that it was simply to create a positive working environment. I can appreciate that.
We saw the gear the medical team uses when they're working in the aseptic area--the place where test tubes are filled with vaccine material. For obviously reasons (we couldn't strip down and put on specialized gear), we weren't allowed in the dirt/germ/hazardous material-free room, but we heard about it. And when someone asked if that room was ever really 100% clean of contaminants, our guide answered with a resounding "Yes."
Eventually we ended up in the room where vaccines are inspected and packaged, but not before we all had to suit up in gowns, booties, goggles, and hair nets (we all wished we had our camera at that point!). In a room near the production line, we got to see employees manually inspecting each vial at their personalized work station. In order to combat muscle and eye fatigue, the employees have specialized chairs and yoga blocks for comfort. Every 20 minutes they have to get up and move around a little bit, stretching their muscles. Very cool that GSK pays attention to that kind of thing.
We got to see a massive machine (affectionately called "the diva") packaging vaccines into boxes and witnessed all the safety precautions taken along the way. Certain colors for certain vaccines (they already have a plan for when they run out of colors...I asked). All their packaging is environmentally friendly. Cameras all along the machine insure that everything is labeled correctly. I saw a box missing an expiration date, and when it passed by the special camera, the box was bumped from the line. Safety in action. Of course, there are individuals all along the entire process, so even though the machine was fully automated, humans still have a critical role.
What I will always remember is what happened while we watched the Hib vaccine being packaged. One of the doctors who was on the team that created the vaccine was walking along with our group. He evidently hadn't seen his vaccine being packaged before, because when he saw it, right in front of his eyes, boxes and boxes of the vaccine that he helped create, he got a little emotional. "That's my vaccine," he said. Can you imagine? Seeing your work being prepared to be sent all over the country, saving children from a potentially fatal disease? I couldn't help but get a little choked up myself.
They told us about how they had been working hard to meet the vaccine shortage that is going around. Talked to us about how they would pull huge numbers of vaccines if a particular lot had problems (which they haven't had to do). Clearly communicated their passion for vaccines and patients' lives.
As if the facility itself wasn't impressive enough, I was really impressed by GSK in general. Specifically, many of the presentations and part of the tour were done by women...Impressive, strong, intelligent women. A couple of the bloggers asked GSK if the women leaders were brought out specifically to impress us, but, no. They really do have women in high ranking roles. Although this particular facility doesn't have on-site daycare, they do provide flexible scheduling for moms. In fact, the woman who was giving us part of the tour had to hand the tour over to someone else right at the end in order to go pick up her son. She returned as we finished our tour, and we all waved at her kid.
Yeah. I was very impressed.
The whole experience was really amazing. GSK didn't ask us to write about or tweet any part of our experience, but I am anyways because I think they did a good job. I'm not saying I'm all in favor of Big Pharma, but when it comes to vaccines and when it comes to their facility in Marietta? Well done.
More to come about meeting the other bloggers and eating some really good Cuban food in Philly.
For more accounts of our trip, check out The Feminist Breeder, Uppercase Woman, and Sarah and the Goon Squad. Oh, and the very funny Michael who writes the GSK Blog (and managed to impress us all with a Kierkegaard reference) also has a nice write-up.