Dutch export success story: vaccines hidden in meaty bones

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Looking at the plant of the veterinary pharmaceutical giant Intervet on the outskirts of the Brabant town of Boxmeer, it would be easy to delude yourself into believing you have just arrived at Mr Wonka's factory from Roald Dahl’s famous children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The merger with a French competitor, which is to be finalised soon, will make Intervet one of the world’s largest producers of veterinary medicines. In the tranquil environment of Intervet’s laboratories, young scientists are at work developing cures for viral and bacterial infections affecting animals, and, indirectly, humans.

A sign warns visitors in no uncertain terms to “Make sure to use the correct entrance”. The sign is testimony to the size of the sprawling plant, which covers an area equal to no less than 17 football fields. Two flags are fluttering in the wind outside the main office building. The US Stars and Stripes - parent company Merck has its headquarters in the United States - and the Dutch national flag. Soon, the plant will have to add another flagpole.

The French flag will probably be first raised at the site in 2011. Intervet, leader in animal vaccines is to merge with the French company Merial, the proud producers of a leading remedy against fleas and of anti-parasitical drugs for farm animals. The two businesses appear to be complimentary, but the merger has yet to be approved by the European and US competition authorities.

Giant cauldrons
Hidden behind the main gate on the outskirts of Boxmeer lies Charlie’s magical world. White-clad Oompa Loompas are performing their incomprehensible duties; huge cylindrical cauldrons can make you disappear forever and, to perfect the image, here and there coloured liquids can be seen bubbling away. The fantasy is cruelly disrupted by research director René Aerts, who provides crystal-clear explanations off what his associates are up to.

Stray dogs
Whereas Merial has prospered in the Western pet market, Intervet boasts other areas of expertise. One of the liquids bubbling away in its cauldrons is to provide a solution to the problem of rabies among stray animals. Director René Aerts proudly explains: "We are working on a powerful drug which could be applied to meaty bones scattered from air planes. This is really the only way to vaccinate stray dogs. There is no need for this type of measure in the Netherlands, but there is in countries like India or in Africa or Latin America."

Alarm phase five
No matter how quietly the lab workers are going about their business –music playing in the background – at times current events shatter the peacefulness of the Brabant site. A major outbreak of animal disease means all hands on deck, code red and alarm phase five. René Aerts says: "The latest emergency involved an outbreak of bluetongue disease among sheep and cattle. And during the Mexican flu (A (h1n1)) pandemic we focussed on the health of the nation’s stock of pigs. Sometimes we knock together a vaccine in 18 months, which under normal circumstances would take six to eight years”.

Animal testing
The animals’ quarters are not included in the tour. It is no secret that Intervet, like its fellow pharmaceuticals, conducts tests on live animals. In earlier publications, the company stated it was helping far more animals than it was subjecting to tests. Intervet said it did everything in its power to reduce animal testing, but could never do completely without. The company invests in research for alternative, animal-free test methods and each year awards a prize to scientists achieving progress in this field.

The conversation turns to the sheer boundless love of man for his pets. At Intervet, they’ve heard it all: chemotherapy, insulin shots for diabetic dogs, pills for cardiac arrhythmia, nothing is too much trouble or too expensive when it comes to our four-footed friends. "And if you believe this only holds true for the United States, think again. Here in the Netherlands we also use a lot of these types of medicines."

Chemotherapy for a cat suffering from cancer, isn’t that taking things a bit far? “Owners want their pets to enjoy the same level of care and protection that they are. You can laugh about it, but to us it means making medicines intended for people suitable for animals."

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