By Johanne Adam
As a French business leader and holder of a PhD in pharmacy, Alain Mérieux places great importance on higher education and research. Every day, he manages a range of health care companies and foundations that enjoy international success.
In 1963, he founded a company that specializes in biological diagnoses and he continues to pursue the work started by his father as president of Institut Mérieux, a global leader in human and animal vaccines. This ground-breaking medical and pharmaceutical research institute, comprising bioMérieux, Transgène and Mérieux NutriSciences companies, employs nearly 15,000 people in over 40 countries.
The Gazette sat down with Alain Mérieux, who will be awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Ottawa at its Fall 2015 Convocation.
What does receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Ottawa mean for you?
I am proud and very pleased to be receiving this recognition; it comes from a university in a country that I have known for a long time and of which I am particularly fond. My family, and the companies and foundations we have created, have nurtured close ties to your country for several years.
You have accomplished a great deal. What achievement stands out most in your mind?
We have taken up several challenges in the field of public health. Our project in Brazil is one that had a profound effect on me. In 1974, when that country was faced with an epidemic of meningitis, Institut Mérieux took action to formulate a vaccine against Type A and Type C meningitis. In record time, we built production labs in Marcy l’Étoile, France, to produce more than 100 million doses. Our efforts paid off, and in the space of a few months, we were able to vaccinate the entire Brazilian population and stamp out the epidemic.
What achievement are you most proud of?
I am particularly proud of our foundations’ work in Mali and Haiti. In these countries, whose populations are highly susceptible to infectious diseases and do not have access to even the most basic of health care infrastructures, we have set up top-level labs that aim to support infectious disease diagnosis, train medical staff, and conduct applied research on the ground that is tailored to the diseases typical of each country. In partnership with local health officials, we have created high-security, level 3 labs, the Laboratoires Rodolphe Mérieux, to work on pathogens that afflict these areas, more particularly on diagnosing tuberculosis.
We are working with Université Catholique de Lyon to set up training programs to qualify lab technicians.
Based on the success of our centre in Bamako, Mali, we initiated projects in six other West African countries, namely Senegal, Guinea, Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, and Niger. We are working with these countries to strengthen their capabilities in clinical biology to assist them in diagnosing infectious diseases. The resulting network of labs proved particularly effective in fighting the latest Ebola epidemic, and the strain responsible for this epidemic was isolated in our Jean Mérieux Inserm level 4 labs in Lyon in March 2014.
What projects are you working on now?
Our foundations are trying to expand the network of Rodolphe Mérieux labs, which today number 10. We will soon be opening a lab in Brazil, and we have also started projects in Iran and in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Our goal is to create one new lab every year.
In a completely different field, namely higher education, I am committed to working with the Université de Lyon, through its foundation, to try to strengthen ties between this university and the economic and industrial sectors, and to increase the university’s internationalization. In particular, we are working on a establishing a joint medical program between the universities of Ottawa, Shanghai and Lyon.
What are your plans for the future?
In the field of public health, I would like to continue to break down barriers between North and South, between disciplines and between cultures. And I am deeply convinced that higher education must play a crucial role in breaking down these barriers
What message do you intend to convey to the graduates at Convocation?
It will be a paradox!
I will tell them to be ambitious, and yet remain humble. And also, to stay true to their roots while adopting a global perspective.