Bacterial Infections Boosting bioMerieux Business

Rising threat of bacteria-borne infections, from E. coli to drug-resistant staph, is a boon to maker of tools to detect and identify germs as sales are expected to rise 7 percent this year.

DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — The rising threat of bacteria-borne infections, from E. coli-laced spinach to drug-resistant staph, is creating a healthy boost at bioMerieux in Durham.
The French company, which has its North American headquarters in Durham, makes tools to detect and identify germs, including those that cause meningitis, pneumonia and septic shock.
For the first time since setting up operations here six years ago, bioMerieux's worldwide sales increases are picking up steam. After years of 5 percent sales increases, the company projects a more than 7 percent increase this year. Now it is expanding production and adding jobs at its Durham manufacturing plant.
''For the moment, things are going quite well,'' said Murielle Andre, an HSBC analyst who started tracking bioMerieux this year.
The past 18 months have been tumultuous for bioMerieux, whose stock is traded on the Paris stock exchange. To concentrate on medical testing, the company sold a business unit, phased out U.S. production in another and tagged a large production plant in the Netherlands for closure.
The changes cut more than 80 jobs in Durham.
The death of an heir in July 2006 led the Merieux family to pick a chief executive from outside the family for the first time in the company's 110-year history. Since taking his position in October of 2006, CEO Stephane Bancel has revved up the company with the introduction of 15 products and the purchase of two small companies to bolster development of products, including tests to detect cancer.
In Durham, bioMerieux is in the final stages of a $7.5 million expansion to increase production capacity. The company has hired about 60 people this year and plans to add as many as 100 more over the next year or two.
That would bring bioMerieux's work force in Durham to about 900. The company now has about 800 local employees, 570 of them in production.
''I'm very confident that we're now on a steady path,'' said Marc Mackowiak, head of bioMerieux in North America.
The Durham operations include research and development, manufacturing, sales and marketing.
The manufacturing plant produces plastic bottles that are filled with a liquid that feeds bacteria. Laboratories in hospitals fill the bottles with blood samples to grow infection-causing bacteria.
The bottles are part of a testing system that includes diagnostic instruments. In the United States, bioMerieux manufactures the instruments in St. Louis.
Each year, nearly 2 million Americans get an infection in a hospital; nearly 90,000 will die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
In 2005, drug-resistant germs caused about 94,000 infections and about 19,000 deaths in the U.S., according to a study published last month in the Journal of American Medical Association. The study was the first to establish numbers for drug-resistant bacterial infections.
Drug-resistant bacteria used to be confined to hospitals. But about 15 percent of the patients counted in the study weren't infected in a health care facility.
BioMerieux makes tests to detect and identify many of the germs in as few as 24 hours. It splits about 60 percent of the market with rival BD, also known as Becton Dickinson.
To upgrade and expand production in Durham, bioMerieux plans to add at least one filling line, install equipment that would double packaging capacity and expand its quality-control laboratory.
The plant produces 68 million of the bottled tests each year. By next year, production is projected to increase about 6 percent to 72 million bottles, said Ty Harvey, who oversees production of the tests.
The biggest threat to accomplishing this goal is drought.
Purified city water is the No. 1 raw material the plant uses to make the tests, followed by bacteria food, a powder made from ground-up slaughterhouse waste.
To conserve water, bioMerieux shut off its fountain, stopped irrigating the lawn and raised the temperature setting on the air conditioning system by 4 degrees.
The measures cut the company's water consumption by 48 percent, Mackowiak said.
But he was happy to see rain recently. Without it, he said, ''we would have been in serious trouble.''