Zika virus fear fuels demand for local DEET manufacturer

As the nation prepares for another year of scratchy bites from its least-favorite warm weather pest—mosquitoes—the threat of Zika virus disease is also fueling growth at a local company.

Indianapolis-based chemical manufacturer Vertellus Specialties Inc. has expanded its production capacity by 80 percent at a North Carolina factory to keep up with customer demand for DEET, a common active ingredient in mosquito and tick repellents.

So far, prevention of bites is the only way the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control says humans can prevent transmission of Zika virus.

bradley buehlerBradley Buehler

“We’ve seen strong demand from our customers around the globe,” said Bradley Buehler, business director for performance materials at Vertellus. “DEET is already highly seasonal. We need a flexible plant. We gave ourselves an enhanced capacity to make switches and transitions faster and increased our capacity in the vessels we had.”

Vertellus, which has factories in the United States, Asia and Europe, and markets itself as the largest global maker of DEET, had revenue of $596 million in 2015.

Buehler wouldn’t share Vertellus’ 2015 revenue from DEET for competitive reasons, but said it is an “important piece” of the company’s $110 million performance-materials business. He said the company expects to make between 200 percent and 300 percent more DEET this year compared with last year.

“Increased sales of anything are (positive),” Buehler said. “What I take heart in is that I know my product is helping people who have a distinct need. Preventing bites is what’s important to me.”

The 426 Zika cases in the U.S. have only been from transmission after travel to outside the country. There have been zero reported cases of locally acquired vector-borne Zika, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control.

Most people who get the virus report mild, short-term symptoms such as fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes, and fatalities are rare. But Zika has been worrying public health officials because infection during pregnancy can cause serious birth defects.

Vertellus is not alone in its report of higher demand for repellents.

S.C. Johnson & Son Inc. told the Wall Street Journal that its U.S. sales of Off! Insect repellent are 50 percent higher than last year at this time.

And Spectrum Brand Holdings Inc., which makes Repel and Cutter mosquito repellent, told the newspaper that “sales to both customers and retailers have doubled in recent weeks compared with the same period last year.”

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