Relentless innovation can future-fit Cork’s strong biopharma hub, writes
In 1969, when global biopharmaceutical company Pfizer located in Ringaskiddy, Cork was a very different place.
Verolme, the Dutch-owned shipyard in Rushbrooke, was busy making ships, some of them patrol and fisheries vessels for the State.
For generations, workers at the Sunbeam factory in Blackpool had been making textiles.
On the banks of the Lee, Ford, or Ford’s as it was known locally, operated an assembly plant that made cars and tractors for places as far away as Argentina. If they needed tyres, Dunlop was only down the road.
In the 50 years since, all of these companies have disappeared except Pfizer. Ringaskiddy was Pfizer’s first Irish location. Since then, the company has expanded to six sites in the country, including in Little Island.
From an initial investment of €10m in 1969, Pfizer’s investment in Ireland is now €8bn, with a €2bn contribution annually to the economy. Pfizer has a 3,700-strong workforce, making it one of the country’s largest employers.
Cork has become an important European hub for biopharmaceutical manufacturing and, in some cases, discovery. The harbour area hosts a cluster of big-name biopharmaceutical multinationals, including Novartis, Janssen and BioMarin.
Further south, Eli Lilly has a major presence in Dunderrow, near Kinsale, while, just north of there in Brinny, over 850 employees in MSD are developing and supplying complex biologic medicines for a range of conditions.
On the east side of Cork city, AbbVie’s plant in Carrigtwohill is a modern bulk tablet and capsule facility, manufacturing solid oral dose formulations for the global market.
Janssen, the pharmaceutical company of Johnson and Johnson, has two advanced manufacturing sites in Cork. The company is doubling its biotechnology plant in Ringaskiddy through a €300m investment. Although recent news about Novartis has been hard on the affected workers, the job losses will be phased out until 2022 and the company will still have an important role in making medicines after that. Global business services will continue to be delivered from Ringaskiddy.
What happens at Cork’s biopharmaceutical plants really matters. The employment footprint means communities benefit economically. The workers at the plants, whether on the manufacturing lines, in research and development or in business services, are involved in making medicines for the global market.
Their endeavours are improving patients’ quality of life and adding months, sometimes years, to their life expectancy. We tried to capture some of that story in our campaign, ‘Innovate for Life’ — a series of films which are running on social media channels. Our conference of the same name in Croke Park on November 21 will look to the future for medicines innovation.
Cork, and Ireland, are plugged into a bigger biopharmaceutical ecosystem. This is globally networked innovation. It means the discovery and manufacture of medicines in multiple places, with knowledge and expertise shared across borders and the lifecycle of product development and manufacture phased in several jurisdictions.
This has helped the industry to take the fight to major diseases. In a single decade in Ireland, the incidence of cardiovascular disease dropped by 28% in part due to the development of statins. Hepatitis C has virtually been cured by medicines.
Improvements in treatments mean the global HIV/AIDS death rate has reduced by more than 80%. We have made major progress on tackling stomach, colon, lung and ovarian cancer. But still, the disease is Ireland’s biggest killer. By 2040, the number of cases of cancer is expected to double.
That means the industry will need to work harder to find new treatments. We cannot expect to achieve better healthcare outcomes without making the best medicines available to patients when they need them.
In Ireland, patients can’t always get the medicines they need, even when the same medicines are available for the same prices to patients in other countries in Europe. It takes the health authorities too long to reach decisions on medicines reimbursement.
In the new agreement between industry and t he State on the supply of medicines, that must change. As a general election nears, all political parties in their manifestos should make a simple pledge to patients: that we will work with the industry to speed access to new medicines for patients in Ireland.
How fast that process should be, and the kind of funding model that underpins it, can be worked out through dialogue. But without a policy target to aim for, the risk is nothing will change.
The biopharmaceutical industry is working on exciting patient treatment options. CAR-T cell therapies can help the body fight back against cancer, replacing a lifetime of aggressive chemotherapy treatment. Research into gene therapies could cure haemophilia B, a rare but severe blood disorder that affects patients from birth.
Cell therapy holds the potential to control blood sugar, replacing continuous insulin therapy for patients with Type 1 diabetes. Anti-bacterial monoclonal antibodies are offering new ways to fight antibiotic resistance. Research in Alzheimer’s aims to delay the onset of the disease or slow its progression.
What helps to turn medical research into breakthrough treatments are intellectual property incentives — the scaffolding for biopharmaceutical innovation. They incentivise drug discovery, knowing that research and development are costly and risky.
The best-known intellectual property incentive is the patent which enables innovators to stop others using their inventions for 20 years. After that period, patents are published, contributing to scientific knowledge and speeding follow-on innovation.
The US has a pro-innovation regulatory environment, making it a market leader for research in biopharmaceuticals. Europe is the second-largest biopharmaceutical market globally, accounting for 22% of sales.
Growth in Brazil, China and India is prompting a migration of economic and research activities from Europe. So, Europe needs to retain market share against stiffening global competition and efforts, by some, to dilute the intellectual property incentives regime. It is vital that policymakers, in Dublin and Brussels, grasp the importance of robust intellectual property rights to medicines innovation and foreign direct investments. In Ireland, the biopharmaceutical industry employs 30,000 people. We host 24 of the world’s top 25 biopharmaceutical companies.
In 2018, the industry produced more than €47.7bn in goods — 7.4% higher than in 2017 and representing 39.3% of Ireland’s total manufacturing output. These are gains worth building on.
Cork, and Ireland, must plan now to catch the new wave of biopharmaceutical innovation. Next-generation treatments like cell and gene therapies; personalised and precision medicine; genomics; advances in technology like artificial intelligence, robotics and 3D printing — all of these can revolutionise healthcare.
No industrial sector is immune to change and ours, like every other, will need to adapt quickly to stay ahead. It is a constant, essential cycle of renewal. Fifty years ago in Cork, one industry sited and scaled. In the intervening years, several others fell away.
We could do worse than examine the reasons for our industry’s durability and apply them now, in renewed partnership with policymakers, to the radically different, though no less exciting, operating environment for biopharmaceutical innovators.