Merck is moving ahead with ambitious hiring plans at a massive vaccine factory in Durham, with a goal of adding another 150 employees this year.
The new jobs will come on top of the 230 people Merck hired last year, increasing the current total to 450. The facility is preparing to package and eventually grow vaccines to protect against chicken pox and other diseases.
The company announced plans in 2004 for the campus on 262 acres in northern Durham's Treyburn Corporate Park, further reinforcing the Triangle as a hub for vaccine production. In December, Novartis announced plans to expand its massive Holly Springs vaccine plant, and add 100 more jobs during the next two years.
At Merck this year, one focus is to catch up with expansions and rapid hiring, plant manager John Wagner said in a phone interview.
"We need to make sure we can staff and train people at the pace the business needs," Wagner said. "We've got a lot of work on our plate to train all the people we've added."
The Food and Drug Administration approved the first phase of the campus in November, which allows the factory to package chicken pox vaccine. That approval was delayed from last summer when the FDA had some questions about the plant's procedures and systems.
Additional expansions include a testing lab and a facility to grow chicken pox virus, rather than have it shipped in from another Merck site. Now that the FDA has given initial approval at the Durham plant, winning further regulatory approvals will be easier, Wagner said.
"We're just ramping up into production now" and the first vaccines from the Durham plant should reach the market in six to 12 months, he added.
Construction on several buildings is expected to finish in 2012, and officials anticipate the factory will win full regulatory approval in 2013.
In 2012, Merck will probably need to add about 100 more workers at the facility, and then hiring will probably level off, he said. The campus includes several buildings with a total of about 650,000 square feet.
Merck will consider the campus for future production, which could mean further expansion, although nothing is in the works now, Wagner said.
State and local officials lured Merck to Durham partly with the promise of incentives worth up to $45 million if it meets hiring milestones.
Vaccines are a crucial line of business for Merck.
Last week, the New Jersey-based drug maker reported a fourth-quarter loss and forecast weaker-than-expected 2011 earnings. Sales rose 20 percent to $12.1 billion in the fourth quarter.
Merck is still digesting its 2009 purchase of Schering-Plough, and is putting billions of dollars into efforts to find promising new products through its own research and other acquisitions. Kenneth Frazier, who took over as CEO on Jan. 1, needs new drugs to replace revenue from drugs facing generic competition.
Merck shares closed Thursday at $33.04, and are down 8 percent so far this year.