Ireland's willingness to embrace innovation is far ahead of other countries in the EU, according to Andres Rodrigo, general manager at AbbVie Ireland.
“People here build a connection between private and public sectors, recognising the importance and the value of both sides,” he says. “Politicians here have often had work experience in the public and private sectors, and are more willing to discuss, agree and build opportunities.”
Rodrigo took up the position of country general manager in 2019, trading the sunny climes of his native Spain for the softer weather of Ireland. While he says the decision to make the move to Dublin was an easy one for him, he did encounter problems in finding the right place to live, with Ireland’s housing shortage affecting him personally and ultimately delaying his family’s move to join him.
Adapting to his new role as country manager also demanded "more dedication and energy", he recalls. This is understandable given it was a particularly busy year for AbbVie, with the company's acquisition of Allergan being just one of the highlights.
“We are well invested in creating innovation in Ireland, but perhaps we are unique in that we are significantly embedded in communities in the west and northwest of the country, where relatively few pharmaceutical companies are located.”
While bringing a fresh perspective on how healthcare is perceived in Ireland, he says he can also see challenges that are not unique to this country. For example, the broader shift in recognition of healthcare as an investment rather than simply a cost. In that sense the coronavirus crisis served as something of a wake-up call in terms of what constitutes a fair healthcare system, he believes.
“When Covid came we realised how vulnerable we are and how dependent we are on our healthcare system, and how important it is to have a healthy health service that is funded and resourced properly.”
He says the pandemic, and the necessary responses, have resulted in a direct and negative impact on patients who faced delays in their diagnosis or access to the most appropriate treatment option.
He explains that AbbVie, along with others in the pharma industry in Ireland, have been trying to support the HSE on different measures to reduce this impact. He also remains concerned about delays to crucial clinical trials, the basis for future innovative treatments, saying the effects of this will only be felt in the longer term.
Meanwhile, AbbVie has been working hard throughout the pandemic to maintain the supply of medicines into Ireland and the more than 100 countries where they export products.
“It has been a real stress test for all the actors in our production process, and we have delivered on all our commitments. My colleagues in Dublin, Sligo, Mayo and elsewhere have done an excellent job.”
Supply chain aside, there are other roadblocks to medicines access in Ireland. Rodrigo admits he was shocked to discover the long delays Irish patients faced when it comes to accessing innovative medicines – more than 500 days on average.
“Knowing that these products were made in Ireland by the local, world-leading pharmaceutical manufacturing industry, I honestly found it hard to believe,” he says, adding that he views it as a “uniquely Irish innovation paradox”.
He is critical of this inequity, pointing out that the AbbVie plant in Sligo supports the global manufacture and supply of an innovative immunology medicine which is currently unavailable in the Republic yet patients can access it just across the Border in Co Fermanagh.
He welcomes the recent Budget 2021 announcement that the Government is to provide funding of €50 million for innovative medicines.
“We need to recognise that increases in life expectancy mean we need to invest more heavily in these therapies. This funding is a first step, but it will require additional actions in terms of streamlining the approvals process and shortening the time lines to access. This will be crucial to provide better care sooner for patients.”
Rodrigo believes the pharma industry and Government can work together more closely and constructively to address barriers to medicines access, and he references a recently-drafted road map to enhanced engagement with the HSE in this regard. “The intention is there, the political willingness is there, and now we just need to set the date.”
While stressing that patients and the pharma industry need certainty when it comes to access to innovative medicines, he concludes on a positive note.
“It is entirely achievable, and AbbVie looks forward to helping make it a reality by working in partnership with the Government and the HSE.”