Drug company GlaxoSmithKline temporarily shut down its factory in Zebulon, N.C., on Tuesday after testing at a stand-alone cooling tower revealed the presence of bacteria that cause the deadly Legionnaires' disease.

Legionnaires' disease, a severe form of pneumonia, is contracted when a person inhales mist containing the Legionella bacteria. It can naturally be found in warm water and breeds in cooling towers, water tanks, plumbing systems, fountains and hot tubs. It is not contagious.

The company said the Legionella bacteria were discovered during routine inspections at the manufacturing plant, which employs around 850 people. The drugmaker stated that the temporary closure of the site was a precautionary measure and that the plant would reopen after the situation is remedied.

Since the tower is a stand-alone structure, there is no danger of contact with the company's other products. Authorities said the situation does not warrant a public health alert as no threat has been posed to public drinking water.

"The plant means a lot to our community, so we are concerned for GlaxoSmithKline," said Zebulon Mayor Robert Matheny. "But, of course, our first priority is the health and safety of our community. And we've been assured that everything is good with that."

The company said the affected cooling towers will be cleaned and retested prior to the site resuming operation.

"The cooling towers will be cleaned and retested before the site goes back into operation. GSK is taking these precautions to ensure the health and safety of our employees, as well as the safety and integrity of our products," the company said.

The shutdown will not affect the supply of medicine produced in the factory, such as GSK's inhaled respiratory drug Advair, which brings the company $7 billion a year. The drug is also produced at two other sites in Evreux, France, and Ware, England. The site manufactures about 30 drugs in all, but its biggest product is Advair, which is used for treating chronic lung disease and asthma. 

Other drugs produced at the Zebulon plant include Malarone, a malaria drug, Requip for Parkinson's disease, and Combivir for HIV.

Since July, an outbreak of Legionnaire's disease in New York City has already infected at least 113 people and claimed 12 lives.

Photo: Peter O'Connor | Flickr 

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