Merck to expand in Durham

The Merck vaccine manufacturing plant in Durham has yet to produce the first vial of vaccine for sale, but it is getting bigger again.

Merck officials said Thursday that the company will invest about $300 million to expand the facility and add 150 to 180 jobs. When the work is completed in 2011, the plant will cover an area the size of 12 football fields and employ 400.

Workers will make bulk supplies of childhood vaccines and a shingles vaccine for adults, put the vaccines in vials and package the vials for shipment.

“Once all the phases are on line, we'll be able to go from start to finish,” Merck spokeswoman Agnes Speight said.

Right now about 150 people work at the plant, and the first processing line – where the vaccine is put into vials – has yet to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA must inspect and approve the facilities before vaccines can be produced for sale.

When Merck said it would build the plant on 262 acres in Durham four years ago, executives said expansions were part of the master plan for the site. Two years later, Merck announced the first expansion, which was much smaller than the one announced Thursday.

Further expansions will depend on demand for vaccines and products coming to market, Speight said.

To add on with ease, the facility was designed as a cluster of buildings sprouting along a trunk carrying utilities.

If Merck fulfills all of its promises, the company could get about $45 million in incentives, tax breaks and infrastructure improvements from the state and Durham County.

Merck didn't receive incentives for the first expansion.

For the latest expansion, the state would pay Merck about $4.5 million for worker training and to improve an access road if it meets certain criteria. However, Merck won't receive job-development grants or money from Gov. Mike Easley's fund, Speight said. Merck is negotiating an additional grant with Durham County commissioners.

The Durham plant stands to nearly double Merck's employment in North Carolina. The drug maker operates a pharmaceutical manufacturing and packaging plant in Wilson, where it employs about 500. The Wilson plant produces oral drugs to treat conditions including asthma, osteoporosis and high cholesterol.

To finish all three phases of construction in Durham is projected to cost about $700 million.

“Another expansion of the Merck facility is exciting news,” said Ellen Reckhow, chairwoman of the Durham County commissioners.

“It represents a substantial increase in investment at the site,” she said, “along with additional high-quality jobs.”