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Home » Vaccination » Working behind the scenes in the fight against COVID-19

Martin McAuliffe

MD & Head of Cork Operations

Brandon Viner

Site Director, Arklow

The world is beginning to recover from the pandemic with a global vaccine rollout. Ireland is in line to get 14 million doses of different vaccines in the course of 2021, with over 90% of people over 18 now fully vaccinated.

As the world begins to find a new normal, the fight against COVID-19 and indeed other diseases continues, with constant work on updating and developing vaccines. Not least through companies such as Merck, which has been on the frontline of the fight against the disease. The Life Science business of Merck is helping to respond with products and solutions at its two sites in Cork and Arklow that help scientists detect and characterise viruses and ultimately to develop vaccines and therapies.

Developing vital membrane

Martin McAuliffe is MD and Head of Cork Operations at Merck. “It is a centre of excellence for membranes, chromatography and analytical devices used by customers in the pharma and biopharma sectors for research and manufacturing applications,” McAuliffe says. “The Cork site produces millions of feet of all types of membrane on an annual basis. The lateral flow membrane is the key component in rapid diagnostic antigen tests, typically used in pregnancy tests and tests for infectious diseases like dengue fever, ebola and malaria. The membrane is also a key component in the rapid antigen tests for COVID-19.”

McAuliffe points out that with the onset of the pandemic, the facility’s main duty was to keep colleagues safe, but its second was to see how, following protocols on site, the company could continue to supply its essential products. “The customer demand for this type of membrane has significantly increased since the onset of COVID-19,” McAuliffe explains. “As a result, Merck’s Cork site has completed a €36 million expansion to double its output of lateral flow membrane annually. We have extensive experience in collaborating with our partners to support the production of rapid antigen tests, as a key supplier of lateral flow membrane.”

Merck has been based in Cork for over 30 years and has grown from a relatively small operation to now employing over 750 staff. As the site continues to expand, opportunities will arise in engineering, quality, process and technology operations areas in the next 12 months.

Increasing cholesterol production

Brandon Viner is Site Director in Arklow, which is primarily known for its production of cholesterol. “Merck Arklow is the primary centre for cGMP bulk manufacturing of commercial and late-stage APIs (active pharmaceutical ingredients) and advanced intermediates, high purity solvents, buffer solutions and excipients,” Viner says. “We have expertise in new process evaluation, process development and technology transfer and we currently have over 100 employees supporting the operation here.”

But it is cholesterol that is the key component and demand was exacerbated by the onset of the pandemic. “Our site is producing cholesterol, a key lipid which may be used as a component of mRNA therapeutics and vaccines,” says Viner. “Global demand for our product increased rapidly with the pandemic. We significantly scaled up our volumes over ten-fold in order to supply the global market. We are proud to be a collaborative partner in the development and supply of potentially life-saving therapies and vaccines.”

Merck, Arklow

Working behind the scenes

Viner emphasises the importance of work behind the scenes and the commitment to providing vaccine development products.

“Our strategy starts with our people and we are outperforming through operational excellence,” Viner says. “We recognise the power of operational excellence when it is pervasive in the culture. Our lean manufacturing principles and support from our partners enabled us to successfully increase our cholesterol output by ten-fold.”

Merck empowers its employees to fulfil their ambitions and its diverse businesses offer various career moves to seek new horizons. The company offers flexible working conditions and competitive remuneration packages including annual bonus, pension, healthcare and subsidised canteen and gym facilities.

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