Covance officials marked the final phase of construction on their controversial $100 million drug-testing laboratory with an invitation-only ceremony and tour guarded under tight security Thursday morning.
After several speeches by company executives and government figures including Arizona Secretary of State Jan Brewer, project officials offered the first glimpse of an unfinished building at Queen Creek and Gilbert roads that could start housing test subjects ranging from rodents to primates as early as the second quarter of 2009.
The ceremony, announced only the previous day, unfolded without interruption by hecklers and protesters who have dogged the facility since its inception.
Security at the event included requiring attendees to produce identification badges before entering.
"We always anticipate that there will be protests," said Camilla J. Strongin, a spokeswoman with Covance's public relations and lobbying firm, The Symington Group, helmed by former Arizona Gov. Fife Symington.
Covance is one of many firms that work under contracts given by pharmaceutical and consumer product firms to test the safety of drugs and other products on animals.
The New Jersey-based firm, the largest contract pharmaceutical research firm in the industry, has been the subject of a lawsuit that attempted to halt construction of the Chandler lab, as well as a barrage of criticism and protests by groups advocating animal rights and the environment. The lawsuit was dismissed in February.
The facility, representing the largest capital expenditure in the company's history, could eventually employ up to 2,000 people, including many highly paid, white-collar professionals such as scientists, researchers and managers.
Wendel Barr, the company's chief operating officer, said Covance is positioned to benefit from an ever-expanding pool of money that drug companies pay for research and development.
That pool is expected to double from $15 billion annually to $30 billion over the next five to 15 years, he said.
Barr added the company's revenue, which reached $1.5 billion last year, should mirror that growth.
"So if we didn't lose (market) share, obviously we'd be a $3 billion company," he said.
The facility is gargantuan, encompassing 288,000 square-feet of space.
During the tour, officials took attendees through a section containing numerous "vivarium rooms," where the animals are kept.
The windowless rooms, built of cinder block and painted white, are about the size of a single-car garage and each one will contain a number of kennels.
Donna Clemons, director of veterinary services, said the size of the rooms exceeds the standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
She said test subjects will be purchased from an outside company specializing in breeding animals for research.
Animals that are euthanized will be held on the premises until taken by a vendor and incinerated before disposal.
CEO Joe Herring acknowledged the controversial nature of the testing his company conducts on animals by saying it goes to great lengths to treat animals humanely "if for no other reason than it's the right thing to do."
While he spent most of his time highlighting the economic pluses of the industry, company and the new lab, Herring said the company is held to a high standard by federal regulators and the pharmaceutical companies that pay them to test the safety and effectiveness of their drugs.
"We have no other choice," he said. "It's a business imperative."