Pfizer staff remain cautious but not unduly worried about future of Ringaskiddy plant
Pfizer to face stiff competition from generic manufacturers as Viagra comes off patent
It was the drug that launched a thousand quips. It not only propelled Pfizer into the public consciousness but put the company’s Irish headquarters and production facility at Ringaskiddy in Cork Harbour on the map internationally.
Some 15 years on from its launch, Viagra is about to come off patent, opening up the market to generic copies. The mood among Pfizer’s workforce involved in the manufacture of the drug’s active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) sildenafil, in Ringaskiddy, is cautious.
Part of the reason for this caution – as opposed to outright pessimism – is the fact that, despite its headline grabbing profile as the Pfizer Riser, Viagra was never as dominant a drug in Ringaskiddy’s product portfolio as it was in the public consciousness.
Equally important is the fact that the Pfizer workforce has been through the experience of a drug coming off patent before – most notably the company’s most successful drug, Lipitor, last year, the result of which is the closure next year of its plant in Little Island.
That closure will mean the loss of 139 jobs, with Lipitor production to be accommodated at Ringaskiddy where the company will have spare capacity as it anticipates a fall in demand for Viagra due to competition from generic rivals.
One Pfizer employee who did not wished not be named said the ending of the patent, in itself, was “certainly not a huge concern for guys on the floor”.
“ Their main concern is that Singapore can do their job cheaper and could take the manufacturing jobs [from Ringaskiddy].”
Another employee said there was already an acceptance among workers that the company will have to focus on producing second generation versions of drugs such as Lipitor and Viagra to compete with the generics.
“But we’re confident that, as more drugs move into the post-loss of exclusivity stage, we know we can deliver a good product which some of the generic manufacturers can’t guarantee – look at the recent case of Ranbaxy which admitted selling adulterated drugs.”
According to the Pfizer source, sildenafil never dominated production schedules at Ringaskiddy to the extent that it was portrayed in the media, with the API for Viagra accounting at its height for just 15 per cent of production at one of the Ringaskiddy plants.
“Sildenafil was never in constant production. What we would have was two production campaigns a year each lasting a couple of months where we would makes tonnes of Sildenafil to be sent to a central store in Brussels and drawn on as required.”
According to the Pfizer source, the workforce recognises that, in addition to developing second generation versions of its main brands to compete with the generics, Pfizer must also develop new products to secure market share.
“We’re developing a number of new drugs which are highly potent – they are small dosage treatments so there isn’t the same need for bulk production. Some of them, for example, might have just a milligram of API blended with the excipient.
“It means that we won’t need the same production volumes, but we’re very optimistic for some of them – for example, our new breast cancer treatment drug, palbociclib, has received breakthrough therapy designation by the FDA which is very encouraging.
“What’s going to happen in Ringaskiddy is that we’re going to have two streams – the second generation versions of the established products and then the new high potency smaller volume products – and both need to work to keep staff numbers at current levels of around 400.
“If we can keep our production capacity at Ringaskiddy up in the 80 or 90 per cents so as to keep the manufacturing cost per kilogram down, then we can do well and compete with other Pfizer operations in Singapore and Puerto Rica where production costs are lower.
“But Ringaskiddy is a centre of excellence within the Pfizer organisation and we have a lot of expertise here and that should stand in our favour. Management have told us our future is in our hands so we know what we have to do in terms of achieving efficiencies.”