Abbott Laboratories has opted for Ireland as a key manufacturing base for its new diabetes monitoring system even though the State is one of the most reluctant in Europe to use the product.
The Freestyle Libre 3 products allow patients to continuously monitor glucose levels via a smartphone app and is one of the US healthcare giant’s fastest growing businesses. One in 10 people worldwide has diabetes, including an estimated 260,000 in Ireland, and the number is rising sharply.
The greenfield site in Kilkenny is seen as key to meeting global demand for the latest version of the product which was approved by US regulators earlier this year. The investment will run to €440 million and involve 1,000 additional jobs being created.
Donegal, where the company currently employs close to 700 people and where 200 of these new jobs are heading, is already a worldwide manufacturing base for the actual sensors that sit under the skin and take the glucose readings.
Abbott’s diabetes care division has been growing sales at 25-30 per cent over recent years, driven by rapid growth in demand for the Freestyle Libre range. That is well ahead of overall group sales growth and diabetes care now accounts for just over 10 per cent of all Abbott business, with sales of $4.33 billion (€4.2 billion) last year.
“Although Ireland is kind of our manufacturing hub in many ways for Freestyle Libre, it is an unfortunate fact that access for people with diabetes in Ireland to the product is not quite at the level of what you regard as your equivalent countries in Europe,” Jared Watkin, head of the diabetes business, says.
The Freestyle Libre system is cleared for use from the age of four upwards, but it is available in Ireland only to patients with type 1 diabetes who are under the age of 21. That is a minority of that group.
It is not available at all for type 2 diabetes patients, which account for about 80 per cent of the total number.
“In nearly all the rest of Europe, certainly developed Europe, [there] would be access for people with type 1 diabetes, everybody would have access. And even people with type 2 who take insulin as well regularly would probably generally have access too,” he said.
“We will continue to work with the stakeholders there to try to improve access in Ireland.”
Explaining the decision to invest further in Ireland regardless, Mr Watkin said: “The quality we get out of the plants in Ireland across the whole corporation is second to none frankly, and that always weighs in the final decision-making process.”
He said Abbott had, from the outset, focused on affordability of its diabetes monitors. It had not raised prices as successive generations of the device came to market and was significantly less costly than its rivals, he said.
“Just bringing new technology in is not enough these days. We understand the pressures on price and cost in the healthcare system wherever that may be. We were determined to bring it in at a more affordable price point than similar systems. That continues to be the case today.
“Affordability is what has driven uptake,” he said, adding that independent studies were now showing that not only does the product make life easier for the user but “when the healthcare system looks at the overall cost of the system and how much it reduces complications and reduces the burden of the disease, it is actually cost effective as well. That is important for us.
“We see a long, long runway for the Freestyle Libre 3 product,” Mr Watkin said, adding that the third generation of the monitoring system and the company’s ability to expand manufacture of it was critical to keeping Abbott’s rate of growth in diabetes care going.
The company has already announced plans to begin clinical trials on a new generation of blood glucose monitors. These will start in 2023. It is understood the Kilkenny plant will be future-proofed to be able to manufacture the Freestyle Libre 4 range, assuming it is approved by medicine regulators.