Merck investigating noose at NC vaccine plant as execs pledge swift response

Merck & Co.
Upon the discovery of a noose at a construction site at its manufacturing facility in Durham, N.C., Merck notified employees of the incident and launched an investigation. (Merck & Co.)

Pharmaceutical giant Merck is investigating the discovery of a noose at its vaccine manufacturing facility in Durham, North Carolina.

The incident was first reported by the Raleigh News and Observer after the newspaper received a copy of a company email, signed by 17 Merck executives, which informed employees of the discovery on Saturday. WRAL-TV, an NBC affiliate in Raleigh, obtained a picture of the noose, which was discovered hanging over a beam by contract workers.

“Actions such as these will NOT be tolerated and individuals found committing such acts will be dealt with swiftly and severely,” the email said, according to the News and Observer. “As a leadership team, we are disgusted that anyone on our plant site would engage in such behavior.”

RELATED: Merck plant in Durham, N.C. gets $105M to upgrade for J&J vaccine production

The 262-acre facility gained national attention earlier this year when it was tapped to produce bulk substance for Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine. The companies received a $105.4 million government grant for the scale up. 

In response to a request for more information on Monday, Merck provided only a brief statement. The company did not reveal if law enforcement was involved.

“We have zero tolerance for hate, racism, or discrimination in our workplace or society," a spokesperson said. "Currently, we are investigating the incident that occurred at our Durham, NC site.”

The site has 900,000 square feet of floor space and employs 800. Since Merck broke ground there in 2004, the company has poured $1.6 billion into the plant, which churns out roughly 50 million vaccines a year. In 2019, the company announced a $650 million expansion which would add more than 400 jobs by the end of 2022 as it stepped up production of its popular HPV vaccine Gardasil.

RELATED: Merck CEO Frazier joins army of Black execs speaking out on restrictive voting-rights law

Nooses have been used as haunting reminders of racial violence and lynchings, which targeted Black people in the United States over the past two centuries. Over the last two months, eight nooses were found at an Amazon warehouse site in Connecticut, sparking an FBI investigation. 

Merck is guided by one of the few Black CEOs in the industry, Ken Frazier, who is stepping down at the end of this month. In March, Frazier was among a group of African American executives who protested a controversial voting-rights law passed in Georgia, which opponents say makes it more difficult for minorities to vote.