By Nathaniel Herzberg

Posted today at 6.30am, updated at 5.36pm

A medical thesis, another in the history of science, never published. A short documentary film, for the exclusive use of internal promotion, touting an operation carried out with a bang. And boxes of documents, carefully stored in the archives of the Mérieux Foundation. The vaccination campaign carried out in Brazil against meningococcal meningitis in 1975 has left few visible traces in French health history. “We live in a country that is quite centered on itself, explains Alain Mérieux, head of Institut Mérieux from 1968 to 1994, now president of the foundation of the same name. What happens abroad rarely holds a very important place here. “

In Sao Paulo, 10 million inhabitants
were vaccinated in five days, an all-time high

However, the adventure carried out thirty-seven years ago, some 9,000 kilometers from Paris, is indeed a feat of national know-how. One of those exploits, a mixture of ambition, daring and passion, which marks those who take part in them and amazes those who discover them. From April to June 1975, the Lyon pharmaceutical laboratory and the Brazilian authorities vaccinated more than 80 million people threatened by a terrible epidemic of cerebrospinal meningitis. In the megalopolis of Sao Paulo, 10 million inhabitants were protected in five days, an absolute record in the history of immunization. Figures that make you dizzy and resonate strangely with current health news. “Do not try to compare, warns Alain Mérieux, it was another time. The health rules were not the same, international relations were different, and the pharmaceutical industry had other priorities than just profitability. ”

Brazilian Minister of Health Paulo de Almeida Machado (right), greeted when he gets off the plane by Alain and Charles Mérieux (center), in 1974.

So let’s try to extricate ourselves from the current pandemic and plunge back into the 1970s. “To tell the truth, you even have to go back ten years to understand this story, specifies Jacques Berger, 40 years with Mérieux, where he ended up being Deputy CEO. It all started in a meeting at the WHO in 1963. “ The World Health Organization (WHO) brought together drug manufacturers. She is looking for a laboratory ready to work on an endemic meningitis affecting Africa. “They all nosedived, Charles Mérieux raised his finger”, he recounts.

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Read this archive from 1974: Meningitis outbreak sparks concern in Brazil

The man has a reputation as a go-getter, as hyperactive as he is idealistic. Forced, after the death of his older brother, to take over the small family laboratory, he turned it into an ambitious company, producing vaccines and treatments, both human and veterinary. What the hell is he going to do in this mess? “Seen from today, one might wonder, admits the historian of science Baptiste Baylac-Paouly, who supported, in 2018, a thesis devoted to the epic. Institut Mérieux had no experience on the subject. We did not have an animal model available. We had a treatment, sulfonamides, which met more and more resistance. And the market was nonexistent, since the disease was only rampant in poor countries. But whatever, for him it had to be done. “

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