Cristina Azevedo (Fiocruz News Agency)
Nearly 50 years ago, Alain Mérieux, now president of the Mérieux Foundation, came to Fiocruz with the mission of combating the meningitis epidemic that was ravaging Brazil. His return to the Manguinhos Campus last Monday (10/9) to sign a cooperation protocol between the two institutions and the Acre State Hospital Foundation (Fundhacre) was full of memories, but also of prospects for future actions, at a time when the world is facing another pandemic and new health challenges.
“It’s exciting to be back at Fiocruz. I have very strong memories here”, said Alain Mérieux (photo: Peter Ilicciev)
In 1974, his father, Charles Mérieux, then president of the foundation, had signed an agreement with the Brazilian government for the production of the meningococcal A/C vaccine. The agreement included not only the supply of vaccines to immunize the population of 106 million Brazilians at the time, but also setting up a factory for production in Brazil and the training of employees. The factory, in the Rockefeller Pavilion, on the Manguinhos Campus, would later be incorporated into the Immunobiological Technology Institute (Bio-Manguinhos/Fiocruz), created in 1976, the same year in which the technology transfer agreement for the manufacture of the vaccine was signed. Mass vaccination against meningitis would be one of the first challenges of the National Immunization Program (PNI).
“The cooperation with the Mérieux Foundation is very important for us. The manufacture of the meningitis vaccine is linked to the beginning of an industrial revolution at Fiocruz, said president Mario Moreira. “At that moment, Fiocruz began investing more in industrialization, becoming one of the largest vaccine manufacturers in the country. The new agreement is important, as it is key to have the presence of Acre”, he added.
The signed tripartite document establishes a cooperation protocol in the area of research, training and qualification of SUS [Unified Health System] professionals, in addition to reinforcing diagnosis and the epidemiological and molecular surveillance of infectious diseases at the Rodolphe Mérieux Laboratory - Charles Mérieux Center for Infectious Diseases, belonging to Fundhacre (known by the acronym LRM-CICM-Fundhacre). From this document, it will be possible to develop specific agreements and work plans.
“It is exciting to be back at Fiocruz. I have very strong memories from here”, said Alain Mérieux. “And I am happy to sign this agreement today with Fundhacre, Fiocruz and Mérieux for this laboratory so that we can move forward together. It is very important to maintain collaboration in science”, added the president of the Mérieux Foundation, which aims to strengthen local capacities to reduce the impact of infectious diseases on vulnerable populations.
Among other functions, Fiocruz will be responsible for leading the scientific activities and integrating the laboratory into the Foundation's epidemiological surveillance networks, as well as providing diagnostic support services, carrying out the genetic sequencing of samples and providing training courses. Fundhacre, among other actions, will offer the facilities to researchers and students from Fiocruz and members of the Gabriel Network – a network of laboratories created by the Mérieux Foundation in 2008 aimed at structuring international collaboration in the area of infectious disease research. Mérieux will propose research programs, studies and projects; integrate the laboratory into the Gabriel Network; as well as support cooperation programs in research and training applied to infectious diseases. Moreover, it will be formed a responsible committee with representatives from the three institutions to coordinate the development of programs and projects.
The president of Fundhacre, João Paulo Silva e Silva, highlighted the importance of the initiative in the extreme North of Brazil, in a state of one million inhabitants among forests, rubber plantations, with more remote areas and far from the center of the country. “Sealing this institutional relationship brings an immeasurable gain to the region. Our arms are open to build new relationships”, said Silva at the meeting at the Mourisco Castle, which was attended by representatives of the three foundations, such as the vice-president of Research and Biological Collections, Maria de Lourdes Oliveira, and Wilson Savino, advisor to the Presidency for Cooperation with French Institutions, as well as members of Fiocruz Rondônia and guests.
Back to the 1970s
For Alain Mérieux, coming to Fiocruz was a journey through time. “For me, the collaboration to combat the meningitis epidemic in Brazil is unforgettable. I remember that we had a visit in August 1974 from the Minister of Health, in Lyon, asking us to quickly produce millions of doses of the vaccine against meningitis A and C to cover the entire Brazilian population, which at the time was 106 million people. And so we did. We quickly built a laboratory. And we worked night and day”, he said. “And I was proud to return here on August 4, 2005, when Akira Homma inaugurated a laboratory in Bio-Manguinhos named after my father. So this place is unique to me”.
In Bio-Manguinhos, Alain Mérieux visited the Vaccine Technological Complex (CTV), saw the Ball Fermenter built in 1975 especially to be installed at the Fiocruz Pilot Plant, donated by his father, and took a photo in front of the Charles Mérieux Center for the Production of Bacterial Antigens (CPAB).
At the Castle, Alain Mérieux also signed the formal donation of the film Fondation Marcel Mérieux: Brésil (1974-75), produced by the French foundation to record the vaccination campaign against meningitis in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The film had already been with the Oswaldo Cruz House (COC/Fiocruz) since 2005, on the occasion of the inauguration of the CPAB, but the donation was still pending signature.
Mérieux watched the screening of the nine-minute short at the Official Residence, alongside Mario Moreira. Although the film was originally in color, it could only be restored in black and white. Its first scenes show the meningitis in Africa. The images show a Brazil that was experiencing a happy summer of beaches and carnival at a time when the epidemic was exploding, initially hidden by the military government. The documentary shows the long vaccination queues, with children in school uniforms, adults and the elderly, and reports that around 500,000 people were immunized per day, reaching ten million in five days in April 1975, at the beginning of the PNI. “Now, with authorization, we will be able to publicize the film”, explained Diego Vaz Bevilaqua, deputy director of Cultural Heritage and Scientific Division at the COC.
Despite the memories and references to the past, Alain Mérieux highlighted the new challenges in an interview with AFN. “We learn every day. We learned from meningitis, we learned from Ebola, from COVID-19. I first highlight the importance of diagnosis. Second, the importance of the vaccine. There is the new mRNA technology. And we all have to work together because it is a permanent struggle. The world is changing. Demographics are increasing. Exchanges between humans and animals have increased. It is a very complex world. Unfortunately, viruses and bacteria are very comfortable [in this scenario] and they grow, and change. Today, in the South of France, there is the Tiger mosquito, which transmits chikungunya, dengue fever. We live in one world that is facing climate change”.