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As Fires Rage on, S. California Life Science Companies, Researchers Batten Down the Hatches

NEW YORK, Oct. 28 (GenomeWeb News) - The fires raging through Southern California over the past few days have slowed and in some cases stopped business at genomics and proteomics companies in the San Diego area, and have closed some research institutions, according to interviews with company officials.

The fires, which included four separate blazes in San Diego County alone, as well as three others, according to the Los Angeles Times, have led state and local government officials to urge businesses in the area to close yesterday and today.

Sequenom

At Sequenom, which is scheduled to report its third-quarter earnings today after the market close and hold a conference call at 4:30 EST to discuss the results, Robin Jackman, vice president of business development, was in the office this morning trying to figure out how the company executives will manage the logistics of the conference call.

The company is closed for business today as it was yesterday, along with most of the businesses in San Diego County. "The fires don't really threaten our building, but it was so smoky everywhere that you come in, and your eyes fill with water and you start coughing, " he said, "so they just sent everyone home." Additionally, some of the employees live in areas where fires have swept through the neighborhoods and burned down houses.

When asked whether the company just might want to postpone that earnings call, Jackman said "I cannot see anything that would stop us. It's a matter of, 'Do we congregate here, or do we congregate somewhere else where it's less smoky?'"

Sequenom's website and corporate voicemail indicate that an update on the status of the company's operations will be provided after 1PM Pacific Time.

Illumina

Illumina, which has employees living in neighborhoods where fire has destroyed homes, decided to close yesterday, according to company spokesman Bill Craumer. "Employees can't get in; we've got people living in Scripps Ranch and Ramona [two of the affected areas]. We've just decided, let's build our priorities around the employees."

Additionally, the company's manufacturing of oligos occurs in a controlled environment, which would be more difficult to maintain in light of the poor air quality caused by the fires, Craumer said.  "One thing you don't want to do is risk contaminating the processes," he said. The company shut down its oligonucleotide operation on Saturday and has not yet started it back up.

Illumina has been "proactive" in notifying customers who may be affected by the delay in delivery of oligos and other products and services," Craumer said.

As far as when the company will reopen, John Stupnagel, the company's senior vice president of operations, said "it's an hour-by-hour thing," according to Craumer, and that the company is taking its lead from Dick Murphy, the mayor of San Diego.

Nanogen

Nanogen, which is slated to report earnings tomorrow, is open for business today, said Bruce Huebner, the company's CEO.  The company's offices are located well out of the path of danger, but at least one employee has lost a home in the fire, said Huebner. From a shipment standpoint, "we are fine. It didn't impact our production capabilities," he said. "It's the people issues that are more a concern" The air quality is poor, although the building has filters that make the air quality inside much better than that outside, according to Huebner. "Once you get in the building, the smoke smell is all" employees have to deal with, he said.

Accelrys

The San Diego offices of Pharmacopeia's software subsidiary Accelrys were closed yesterday, but open today, said company spokesman Jim Rivas. Although Accelrys' facility is not in immediate danger, Rivas said that several employees live in areas that were evacuated, and at least one Accelrys employee has lost a home.

"We're being as flexible as we can be with our employees given the circumstances," said Rivas, who added that Accelrys management is encouraging its staff to stay home if necessary. School closings in the San Diego region have forced a number of Accelrys employees to work from home today, while other Accelrys staffers opted to bring their children to work instead, Rivas added.

Scripps Research Institute

Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla remains open today, but the institute's officials have told employees only to come to work if it is safe and comfortable for them, said Keith McKeown, the institute's vice president of communications.

Many of Scripps' employees live in San Diego County, so there are fewer people than normal on campus, he said.

"The fire actually came I would say 5 to 7 miles from our location, so that was a little scary, but things do seem to be more under control now," McKeown said.

"Right now, it's just difficult to breathe the air outside. People are wandering around with masks on, and the sky is very gray, and there's ash falling everywhere," said McKeown.

Structural Genomix

Structural Genomix of San Diego was closed yesterday and is closed today, but is probably going to open for business tomorrow, said Herb Mutter, the company's vice president for finance. The company facilities were not in immediate danger, he said, and as they are located near the water, they expect the shore breeze to clear the air tomorrow

Althea Technologies

Althea Technologies, which does contract gene expression analysis and PCR work for biotech and pharmaceutical companies, is also open for business today, and has not so far seen any delay in serving customers, but not all of the employees are able to report to work, said Dave Vandertie, the company's CFO.

"It's tough out there," Vandertie said. "For folks in East County, there's not much we can do but pray for them."

GNF

The Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation is also open today, although the air quality is "marginal," according to an outgoing message on the Institute's voicemail. GNF is leaving it up to employees' discretion as to whether they should come in or not.

UCSD

The University of California San Diego remains closed today, as it was yesterday, according to its website, "giving continuing concerns related to the San Diego fires and the well-being of our students, faculty, and staff." The only employees that are to report to work are those that are "essential," the website said.

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