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‘Ten years of innovation in 10 weeks’: the role of life sciences in Covid response

Pharma and medtech companies showed ‘remarkable resilience’ through pandemic

If it seemed that Ireland’s entire life sciences sector sprang into action as the pandemic began to take hold in March, that’s because it did.

More than 80 pharma and 300 medtech companies operate in Ireland and the industry now employs more than 50,000 people directly. With such a strong foothold here, it is unsurprising that the Irish life sciences industry played a pivotal role in facilitating the response to Covid-19, as well as maintaining other essential health services throughout the dark early days of the crisis.

“What we saw early on is that companies in the life sciences sector, particularly medtech, were diverting all resources to essential services,” says Mark Jordan, chief technologist at Skillnet Ireland.

Organisations across the sector quickly switched their efforts to the areas most necessary in light of the pandemic. Skillnet Ireland saw heightened demand for retraining and upskilling as companies grappled with issues such as new Covid-19 protocols, business structures, workforce productivity and digitalisation. Jordan says larger multinationals were also severely impacted by lockdown measures in other jurisdictions, which saw a demand for financial and scenario planning.


“Organisations were looking to pivot, changing how they did their research and how they reallocated their staff, whether it was towards ventilator production or research into a potential vaccine. They had to create pods with the right blend of skill sets and experience, which was a challenge, and began using new technology to ensure that those now based at home could communicate seamlessly with those on the production line. We saw 10 years of innovation in 10 weeks,” Jordan says.

Clinical research organisation Icon PLC had to get innovative to ensure ongoing trials were kept on track to protect patient safety.

“Our team that monitors the medical safety of patients while in a trial assessed the impact of Covid-19 and the supply of investigation product on all ongoing studies and immediately devised mitigation strategies,” says Dr Nuala Murphy, Icon’s president of clinical research services.

“At the same time, our study teams contacted clinical sites and regulatory agencies to determine the effect Covid-19 was having on clinical trial timelines. Where there were instances of predicted delays, our teams worked with clients to develop study-specific plans to minimise the risk of disruption,” she says.

Maintaining supply

Oxygen Care has been providing medical device solutions to the Irish healthcare sector for almost 50 years. “Because of the bespoke service we supply, our customers depend on our support for life. Our equipment can be seen in a range of hospital areas including theatre and recovery for anaesthetic equipment,” says Linda Ryan, head of sales at the company.

Maintaining supply of this critical equipment became hugely difficult as international competition mounted. Working closely with the Health Service Executive, the team at Oxygen Care was able to procure these vital supplies. They have since began to supply innovative air-decontamination units to several hospitals around the country to aid infection control.

Ireland’s life sciences sector has managed to navigate the challenge of maintaining key supply chains very well in difficult circumstances, says Colin Kavanagh, partner and head of life sciences at Arthur Cox. However, he says the life sciences industry has changed significantly over the past year as the sector remains at the forefront of the Covid-19 response – from the manufacture and certification of personal protective equipment to vaccine development and market access for drugs.

“The industry has shown remarkable resilience, ensuring that issues such as the commencement of new clinical trials, ongoing trial subject recruitment and participation, and maintenance of a continuous supply of medicines are being addressed quickly and efficiently,” he says.

Several critical medicines and medical devices are manufactured in Ireland and it is vital that supply is not interrupted due to Covid-19, says Elaine Daly, partner and head of business consulting at Grant Thornton. Yet she maintains that the significant disruption caused by Covid-19 to the life sciences comes with a silver lining.

“It is a unique opportunity for the sector to re-evaluate existing supply chains, digital preparedness and the opportunity to conduct R&D [research and development] and clinical trials remotely. The rapid adoption and acceptability of remote digital options is an opportunity to reduce costs and allow a more flexible and collaborative approach within the life sciences sector,” she says.

Brexit impact

The pandemic hasn’t abated (yet) but now the twin threat of Brexit looms. Kavanagh says this will undoubtedly have a major impact on the sector – but not all negative.

“Many life sciences companies are reviewing the location of their regulatory authorisations,” he says. “As an English-speaking EU member state with well-respected regulators, highly skilled personnel and competitive tax rates, Ireland is an obvious choice for relocation. Many of our clients in the sector have set up new Irish subsidiaries to carry out regulatory functions. Traditionally a lot of this work has been done in the UK but we are seeing more skilled jobs in regulatory coming to Ireland, which can only be positive for the industry here.”

Ultimately, the biopharma sector in Ireland has shown itself to be resilient in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to Daly, the demand for rapid Covid-19 testing will prove to be a boost for the medtech sector, while an enhanced emphasis on R&D in the area of infectious diseases will be a positive result for the Irish sector.

“The outlook for the industry in Ireland is positive with many organisations announcing plans for expansion in the near term and we expect to see more activity in terms of traditional technology companies collaborating with the industry,” Daly says.

“Although medtech has definitely suffered by the reduction in elective surgeries during the pandemic, we think the future looks bright for Ireland’s life sciences sector,” says Kavanagh.

“We still provide a major beachhead into the EU and the rest of the world for top multinational pharmaceutical and medtech companies and whilst there is increasing competition from other jurisdictions, those companies are always going to require a strong European base and Ireland is extremely well embedded in that – not just in Dublin but all over the country. One of the sector’s main challenges in Ireland now is to ensure that the products produced here are made available to Irish patients.”

Danielle Barron

Danielle Barron is a contributor to The Irish Times