March 12, 2020 11:59AM

Skilled Immigrants Searching for Coronavirus Cures at U.S. Companies

The government has so far kept to minimal and rational restrictions on travel in response to the coronavirus. My colleague Alex Nowrasteh has written about alternatives to outright immigration bans that could slow down the transmission of the deadly disease. But only scientific advancements will save thousands of lives, and it is here that many immigrants are working for treatments and vaccines that will stop the spread and treat the viral infection.

The major U.S. companies seeking a coronavirus vaccine or treatment have together received approvals from the Department of Labor to hire foreign workers with either green cards or H‑1B work visas more than 11,000 times from 2010 to 2019.[i] The eight companies to have used the legal immigration system (at least directly) to request foreign workers include Gilead Sciences, Moderna Therapeutics, GlaxoSmithKline, Inovio, Johnson and Johnson Pharmaceuticals, Regeneron, Vir Therapeutics, and Sanofi. Figure 1 shows the number of workers over the last decade.

Figure 2 shows the number of H-1B workers for whom the Department of Labor has permitted a hire by the occupation of the worker. Over the last decade, the eight companies have received approvals for 3,310 biochemists, biophysicists, chemists, and other scientists. They have received approvals for 2,801 statisticians to analyze the data the scientists are producing. There were also approvals for 2,133 computer, database, and software support staff through the H-1B program since 2010.

Gilead: One of the leading candidates to treat the disease comes from Gilead Sciences. In the last decade, Gilead has received approvals to sponsor green cards for 235 immigrants and H‑1B visas for 9,085 temporary workers from 2010 to 2019. Last year alone, it received Department of Labor H‑1B approvals for more than 300 biochemists, biophysicists, and other biological scientists and engineers. Gilead states that it “will enroll approximately 1,000 patients at medical centers primarily across Asian countries, as well as other countries globally with high numbers of diagnosed cases” this month to “evaluate the safety and efficacy of remdesivir in adults diagnosed with COVID-19.”

Moderna Therapeutics: Among the contenders for developing a coronavirus vaccines is Moderna Therapeutics. On February 24, 2020, it was reported that Moderna shipped vials of mRNA‐​1273 “to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to be used in the planned Phase 1 study in the U.S.” The company has sought green cards for 5 immigrants and received approvals for H‑1B visas on behalf of 76 skilled foreign workers from 2010 to 2019. In 2019, it received approvals for 18 H‑1Bs as biological technicians, biochemists, biophysicists or biomedical engineers.

GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals: GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals is partnering with a Chinese biotech firm to work on a coronavirus vaccine. From 2010 to 2019, it requested green cards for 20 immigrants and H‑1B visas for 435 skilled workers. It requested a dozen H‑1B workers in 2019 to work as biomedical engineers, biophysicists, biochemists, or other biological scientists.

Johnson & Johnson: Johnson & Johnson is working with U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority on a coronavirus vaccine. From 2010 to 2019, Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceuticals has requested 55 skilled H‑1B workers, including 9 biochemists, chemists, and biological scientists.

Regeneron: Regeneron Pharmaceuticals—who came up with an effective antibody cocktail for Ebola in 2015—is working to replicate that positive outcome for the coronavirus. The company has received approvals from the Department of Labor for green cards for 77 researchers and visas for 576 H‑1B skilled workers from 2010 to 2019. In the last year alone, it sought 60 H‑1B workers biological technicians, biochemists, biophysicists, chemists, or other biological scientists.

Sanofi: The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority is also engaging with Sanofi to develop a coronavirus vaccine. From 2010 to 2019, Sanofi received approvals from the Department of Labor to hire 286 H‑1B workers and 21 immigrants through the green card process. Last year, it received several H‑1B approvals for biochemists, biophysicists, or other biological scientists. Sanofi is unique in that it brought on a chief executive as its chief medical officer through an H‑1B in 2010. Sanofi’s Chief Medical Officer is Dr. Ameet Nathwani who believes strongly in the value of diversity from around the world.

Vir Biotechnology: Vir Biotechnology is also developing a treatment for coronavirus by partnering with the Chinese firm WuXi Biologics. From 2010 to 2019, Vir Biotechnology has received approvals from the Department of Labor to hire 13 H‑1B skilled workers as well as 1 statistician as a green card holder. In 2019, it received H‑1B approvals for 5 biochemists, biophysicists, or microbiologists—three of which were senior research associates for virology (the study of viruses).

Inovio: Inovio Pharmaceuticals is collaborating with Beijing Advaccine Biotechnology Co. to “advance the development in China of INO-4800, Inovio’s vaccine against the recently emerged strain of coronavirus (2019‐​nCoV).” In the last decade, it has received approvals for three H‑1Bs.

With the coronavirus spreading globally, President Trump has downplayed the risks to calm the falling markets. But rhetoric will not cure the virus—only scientific advancement will. The president should request Congress expedite the process for scientists and researchers seeking H‑1Bs or green cards—not just for the sake of the current crisis but for all future crises as well.



[i] The data for this post come from the Department of Labor, which discloses the types of workers that it approves U.S. companies to hire as either permanent residents or H-1B temporary workers. Unfortunately, the data do not indicate how long the worker was employed by the company who received the approval.