Merial is the animal health division of Sanofi, a diversified global healthcare leader.
Merial came into being on 1 August 1997 when Rhône Mérieux, the animal health division of Rhône-Poulenc, and Merck AgVet, the animal health division of Merck & Co. Inc combined their animal health assets into a 50:50 joint venture. The new company was a stand-alone enterprise with the industry’s broadest line of products and services for the prevention and treatment of veterinary diseases.
Sanofi, which includes the former Rhone Mérieux, acquired Merck’s 50% stake on 17 September 2009.
Merial can trace its roots to the late-19th century and the great scientist Louis Pasteur.
Merial’s forefather, Marcel Mérieux, who worked in Pasteur’s Paris laboratory founded the Institut Biologique Mérieux in 1897. This was the starting point for Merial’s animal health endeavors.
Mérieux’s son Charles, who had become the head of the Institut, drove the development of the first-ever industrial-scale production of any vaccine in 1947. He also created the Institut Français de la Fièvre Aphteuse specifically to make this foot-and-mouth disease vaccine. Another biological milestone was rabies vaccine in 1968.
The first fruits of the Merck animal health legacy included a major advance in 1940 with sulfaquinoxiline - the first efficient anticoccidial. Coccidiosis was then wiping out 10% of US chickens every year making chicken meat as expensive as beef. In 1962, thiabendazole was launched - the first broad-spectrum endoparasitic agent, for sheep, cattle and horses.
In the 1970s, researchers isolated a novel micro-organism (S. avermitilis) from a fungus found on a Japanese golf course. This led to the avermectin family of antiparasitics and, in particular, ivermectin.
Introduced in 1981 as IVOMEC®for cattle and EQVALAN® for horses, ivermectin took the animal health market by storm. It is effective in controlling parasites in a vast array of species from cattle and pigs to horses and companion animals to camels and other wild life. New ivermectin products were produced virtually every year thereafter, with HEARTGARD (heartworm in dogs, 1987) being a particular success. By the second half of the 1980s ivermectin had become the largest selling animal health product in the world.
Observations in the late 1970s concerning why insects died on plants that had been treated with candidate herbicides led to Rhône Mérieux’s greatest commercial animal health contribution – FRONTLINE®.
In 1922, Rhône Poulenc (Rhône Mérieux’s parent) had acquired the British firm of May & Baker. And it was at May & Baker’s Ongar laboratory that the potential of the fipronil molecule to control fleas and ticks on pets was recognized with FRONTLINE being the resulting veterinary product. This ectoparasiticide, launched in 1994, was eventually to take ivermectin’s crown as the world’s best-selling animal health product. Some 2 billion doses have now been used around the world.
An immediate global enterprise
At the start of its corporate life, Merial’s portfolio contained what remains to this day the only two block busters the animal health sector has produced. The new company was poised to compete on the world market, continuing the tradition of innovation and building for the future.
While its global headquarters were in London, Merial’s major sites were mostly in the U.S. and France, with significant investment in Brazil and well-established production facilities in China. At its launch, its annual sales were estimated at $1.7 billion, R&D investment was around $120 million.
The new enterprise was able to hit the ground running with the first of several vaccines based on modern biotechnology - the canary pox ALVAC platform. Recombinant vaccines against canine distemper, equine influenza, West Nile virus and feline infections were all to follow the first in the series - RECOMBITEK® against Lyme disease. The innovative canary pox platform has been complemented by other biotechnologies including the vector vaccines TROVAC® (avian influenza, 1998) and VAXXITEK® HVT+IBD (Marek’s disease and IBD, 2005).
On the pharmaceutical side too, Merial was quick to the market with a new offering. Within three months of the company’s formation, the company was able to launch EPRINEX® , for the control of internal and external parasites in cattle. Over the years that followed, Merial continued to strengthen its franchise in anti-parasitics, both for production and companion animals.
It also moved into new therapeutic areas with GASTROGARD® (equine stomach ulcers, 2000) and PREVICOX®, the first COX2 osteoarthritis pain reliever to be developed specially for dogs (2005). Another first, either in human or veterinary medicine, is the therapeutic vaccine, ONCEPT™ for the treatment of melanoma in dogs (2009).
In addition to medicines and vaccines Merial also entered into DNA diagnostics with the cattle profiling system, IGENITY® (2003).
Building on success
The R&D to deliver new and improved products and the industrial operations to manufacture them have evolved with Merial’s overall growth.
Infrastructure investment was already underway in 1997, with the opening of a major clinical research center in France that same year. Two years later, a new pharmaceuticals research center was opened at New Brunswick, N.J.
In 2001, a new poultry vaccines plant was underway in Nanjing, China with an up-grade to the existing Nanchang plant being completed in the same year. In Brazil, the FMD factory at Paulinia became the largest in South America in 2002. Since then expansions and process improvements have taken place at all Merial sites. A major project has seen vaccine manufacturing move from Lyon to neighboring Porte des Alpes, Lyon and the FRONTLINE site at Toulouse ready itself for future demands. In 2009, a $70 million expansion of the Nanchang avian vaccines plant was announced, while in 2010, Merial acquired FMD manufacturing and R&D facilities at Lelystad, Netherlands.
In 2000, Merial relocated its Global Headquarters from London to Duluth, GA, which was already the home of the U.S. business, and in close proximity to R&D and manufacturing sites in Athens and Gainesville.
Today, this Global Headquarters oversees a concern that has grown by over 50% since Merial was formed in 1997, despite divesting itself of major poultry breeding businesses in order to concentrate on veterinary healthcare alone. Management is on a regional basis – United States, EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) and International. Merial operates in over 150 countries either directly or via distributors.
It has now been announced that Merial's Global HQ is to move to Lyon, France.