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A vibrant pharma sector

Barry McCall looks at the continuing success of Ireland’s pharmaceutical industry

Ireland is now firmly established as a world-leading centre of excellence for the manufacture of pharmaceutical and fine chemical products. The industry, which comprises pharmaceutical, fine and specialty chemical and biotechnology companies, is now one of the world’s largest exporters of pharmaceuticals.

Ireland is also the number one European location for pharmaceutical and life sciences investment. As a result, six out of 10 of the world’s top-selling drugs are produced here while 18 of the world’s top 20 pharmaceutical companies have substantial manufacturing operations in Ireland.

The importance of the sector to the economy is quite simply enormous. “Exports associated with industry total around €65 billion,” says Matt Moran, director of industry organisation Biopharmachem Ireland. “The sector employs around 30,000 people directly. It’s been growing and maturing since the 1960s.”

Leading the line up of global giants with significant operations here is Pfizer, the world's largest biopharma company, with seven locations in four counties. The company employs well over 3,000 people here and has invested more than $7 billion in Ireland since first arriving in 1969.


Another company with a long history here is Eli Lilly and Company which has had an Irish presence since the early 1980s when it began production at its Kinsale facility. It currently employs more than 800 people at facilities in Kinsale, Cork City and Dublin.

A more recent arrival in Ireland is biotechnology company Regeneron with facilities in Dublin and Limerick. The company recently announced a $100 million expansion of its operations in Ireland with plans for an additional 300 jobs at its Limerick campus. This will bring total investment at its Industrial Operations and Product Supply (IOPS) bioprocessing site to $750 million and employee numbers in Ireland to 850 by the end of 2018.

Johnson & Johnson is perhaps the longest established overseas pharmaceutical company in Ireland having been here since 1935. The company currently employs more than 2,700 employees in its pharmaceutical, medical device and consumer businesses across 11 sites in Cork, Dublin and Limerick. The overall operation comprises six manufacturing plants, four commercial offices and an IT centre of excellence.

More recently, its subsidiary Janssen Sciences Ireland announced a €300 million expansion of its Ringaskiddy, Co. Cork, facility involving an increase in manufacturing space of 19,100sq m and the creation of an extra 200 jobs once completed. This will bring employment at the plant to 750.

The industry is by no means confined to overseas companies, according to Enterprise Ireland life sciences director Deirdre Glenn. “The sector is hugely important to the economy,” she says. “From an Enterprise Ireland perspective there are 350 indigenous firms employing 8,000 people with exports of €1.6 billion in 2016.”

These firms span the full range of pharmaceutical and medical device manufacture as well as a very strong sub-supply sector. Among the best known Irish names are Chanelle, the leading veterinary pharmaceutical company and Icon, which has established itself as among the world’s leading contract research organisations.

Ireland also does rather well when it comes to top drugs. Indeed, for a long time Pfizer’s most famous export from this country has been its well-known erectile-dysfunction drug Viagra. But that obscures the fact that its biggest export is probably rheumatology drug Enbrel, closely followed by the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor.

Ireland is also quite famous for being the "home" of Botox with most of the world's supply of the beauty drug being manufactured by Allergan at its Westport, Co Mayo, plant.

Another blockbuster made here is Lantus, an injectable form of insulin for diabetics, which is manufactured at Sanofi’s Waterford plant and has annual sales running to billions of dollars.

This success must be protected, according to KPMG partner Sean O'Keefe. "The sector is very competitive," he says. "Lots of countries around the world want to attract investments from life sciences companies so Ireland has to be even more competitive to stay ahead of them. We need to produce sufficient numbers of graduates to meet the industry's needs. As a country we probably need to be investing more in education across the board – primary, secondary and university – to ensure we have pool of talent required now and in the future."

Arthur Cox life sciences partner Colin Kavanagh is confident in Ireland’s ability to compete for future investments in this space. “The efforts of government, agencies such as the IDA and local management have been instrumental in attracting this investment since the 1940s,” he says. Manufacturing operations are supported by a sophisticated infrastructure of serviced sites, public utilities and specialist support services.

“From personal experience there is a lot of leg work involved in making sure that Ireland is front and centre when firms are considering where to locate their next investment,” he adds. “The competition is fierce, but Ireland has a lot to offer. Tax is obviously a factor but, as an EU member country that is English speaking but with plenty of multilingual talent and a distinctive but relatable culture, we are well placed to compete at the highest level.”

Not just the blockbusters

Blockbusters like Botox may well be household names, but most people will be blissfully unaware of the names of the vast majority of medicines made in Ireland. This is partly due to the very strict rules governing the sale of prescription drugs in this country which prevent manufacturers and distributors from promoting them directly to the public.

Among these hidden success stories is Glivec, made by Novartis in Ringaskiddy, which is a chemotherapy medication used to treat cancers such as chronic myelogenous leukaemia and certain types of gastrointestinal tumours. Despite its low profile, annual sales run to billions of dollars.

GlaxoSmithKline manufactures Tykerb, an oral treatment for advanced breast cancer at its state-of-the-art Currabinny, Co Cork, plant where it has invested €700 million over the years.

Other lesser known made in Ireland medicines include psoriasis treatment Stelara and rheumatoid arthritis drug Simponi, both made by Janssen Science at its Ringaskiddy, Co Cork, plant.

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times