Pharma sector plays down prospect of Covid-19 vaccine production in the State

Major drug manufacturers already at full capacity producing other medications

A shipment of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine. Photograph: Johnny Milano/Bloomberg

A shipment of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine. Photograph: Johnny Milano/Bloomberg


The pharmaceutical industry has played down the prospect of Irish-based multinationals turning Irish production facilities to Covid-19 vaccines to cover shortages in the State’s supply.

Most major drug manufacturers are already at full capacity producing sought-after drugs for the treatment of cancer and other critical illnesses for global supplies exported from Ireland.

MSD Ireland, known as Merck in the United States where it is helping to produce Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose Covid-19 vaccine, produces a top-selling cancer drug, Keytruda at one of Irish facilities in Carlow, the drug group’s first vaccine manufacturing site outside the US.

There are no plans by MSD to start production of the J&J vaccines in Ireland. The Carlow plant is already at capacity producing the in-demand cancer drug at the “fill-finish” facility.

A spokesman for the company said that under an agreement with the US government MSD will use its facilities in the US to produce, formulate and fill vials of J&J’s Covid-19 vaccine.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said yesterday that the Government was in direct contact with pharmaceutical companies that have a significant presence in the country and said that there was State aid available if the companies wanted to produce Covid-19 vaccines here.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Dáil that Covid-19 vaccine producer Pfizer had turned down his offer of support to start manufacturing vaccines at its Irish plants. Pfizer had told him that it had sufficient capacity at its main plant in Belgium which had been reconfigured, he said.

Inward investment

IDA Ireland, the State agency responsible for inward investment, raised the possibility of Covid-19 vaccine production commencing in discussions with firms operating in Ireland as early as the middle of last year and has been in continuous contact with the pharma firms in the State.

However, the industry has tamped down suggestions that pharma companies could repurpose facilities for Covid-19 vaccine production as it would mean reducing production of other drugs.

One industry source dismissed the Government’s hope that Irish pharmaceutical companies could turn to making Covid-19 vaccines to cover short- to medium-term shortages as “kite flying.”

“These multinationals have looked around the world at where they have capacity so that they could ramp up Covid-19 vaccine productions quickly,” said another source.

He suggested that even if firms were to turn to vaccine production in the State, it would be some time before they could be produced here, long after the shortages over the coming months, and, that if they were produced here, they would be for worldwide distribution.

“Even if one could wave a magic wand and rustle up vaccines here, it would still be for global supplies in the same way Pfizer’s vaccines in Belgium are not for Belgian supply,” said one source.

Oliver O’Connor, chief executive of the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association, said that companies were “cooperating in an unprecedented way” in supporting each other’s vaccine manufacturing capacity and repurposing around the world, including in Europe and the US.