By Luke Timmerman
Not many pharmaceutical executives can say with a straight face that if they are successful, they will really help millions of people live significantly longer and healthier lives around the world.
Julie Gerberding, the former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has been in one of those rare positions for about the past 18 months as president of Merck’s vaccine unit. At Merck (NYSE: MRK), she has been learning the ins and outs of a $5-billion-a-year operation that makes 14 of the 17 vaccines the CDC recommends for children, and nine of the 10 recommended for adults. It would be an understatement to say this job carries a huge social responsibility, both to insure steady supplies of vaccines already on the market, and to develop new ones.
I met with Gerberding earlier this week while she was in Seattle for the Pacific Health Summit, an invitation-only gathering of health leaders in academia, industry, and government. She was there to discuss the next big challenges in the field of vaccines. Part of what brings Merck, Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, and other major vaccine companies into the conversation is the realization that vaccines are no longer just a low-margin, high-liability corporate backwater. New technologies propelled the vaccine market to more than $22 billion in sales in 2009, and projections are that it will keep growing by 10 percent a year over the next five years, according to Kalorama Information, a market research firm. For a diversified company like Merck, with $46 billion in total sales in 2010, vaccines are a sizable business segment.
Here’s what Gerberding had to say about the opportunities she sees in the vaccine business, plus a bit about what she’s learned in making the switch from the public sector to the private sector.