This week, the Government, led by the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, introduced an €18 billion expansionary Budget – the largest in the history of the State. It was a bold move to guide the country through COVID-19, with counter-cyclical supports for the economy and careful management of the public finances.
With the pandemic showing no signs of abating, the Government planned the Budget on the basis that there would be no COVID-19 vaccine next year. It was prudent to make that assumption – politicians must, afterall, deal with the facts as they are. But, for the research-based biopharmaceutical industry, we see reasons to be more optimistic. A vaccine for COVID-19 is a reasonable expectation – and hopefully more than one. About a dozen vaccine candidates are in late-stage clinical trials, including one that Pfizer is working on with our partners BioNTech. Although the world urgently wants a vaccine, safety comes first. We must move at the speed of science.
Next year, the Government’s spending on health will rise to €21 billion, with an extra €4 billion to cover mainly COVID-19-related costs. Significantly, an extra €50 million will be invested in new medicines that our industry discovers and makes. That decision is a game-changer for Irish patients. It means they will have a broader range of breakthrough treatment options available to them – and faster – for serious medical conditions.
The Government deserves enormous credit for the funding decision which reverses a move by the previous one to stop reimbursing new medicines. That created a backlog which is now gradually clearing though a blend of industry-generated savings and public funds.
By providing funding for new medicines, the Government signalled that it values innovation. Our industry will bring forward more than 50 new treatments next year. The Government knows the potentially transformational impact of new medicines on healthcare, as well as their role in driving economic growth and jobs.
In Cork, the impact of biopharmaceutical innovation is clear. During the pandemic, our companies have continued to make medicines and get them to patients. They are searching for vaccines and treatments, and partnering with voluntary and community groups that need support.
We have tried to tell Ireland’s story of medicines innovation in film, including through the ‘Innovate For Life’ campaign. Our industry’s commitment to Ireland spans several decades. In 1969, Pfizer, the company I work for, located in Ringaskiddy. Since then, we have expanded to six sites across the country, including in Little Island. Our investment in Ireland is now €8 billion.
As Pfizer expanded, other biopharmaceutical companies sited and scaled in Cork. Novartis, Janssen and BioMarin are all making medicines for global supply from Ringaskiddy. In other parts of the county, in places like Little Island, Dunderrow, Brinny and Carrigtwohill, companies such as MSD, Eli Lilly, Gilead and AbbVie are helping to put Cork on the global innovation map. Once Cork was known for making cars, ships, textiles and tyres. Now, it is making medicines for the world.
None of this is lost on Cork’s Cabinet members. The Taoiseach, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Michael McGrath, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, are all deeply aware of the industry’s value, locally, nationally and globally. We know from our conversations with them that they understand the opportunities and challenges that face the industry. So, too, do colleagues in key agencies, including IDA Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland. All of us, along with the health authorities, must work together on a shared growth pathway for the industry. Although there is a well-established tradition of medicines innovation in Ireland, there can be no room for complacency. Science is moving at breakneck speed. As a country, we have much to do to keep pace with it and stay in the game for future global investments.
Our industry is bringing new therapies to patients that are transforming the trajectory of disease. Cell therapy – which replaces diseased, faulty or missing cells with healthy versions – could open new horizons in medicine. Blood cancers – specifically lymphoma and leukaemia – are cell therapy’s first breakthrough frontier, with innovations in CART-T therapy altering a patient’s immune cells to make them better at fighting cancer. Then, scientists are making progress on gene therapy by replacing faulty DNA to cure genetic diseases. We have commissioned PwC to examine how Ireland could be an adopter of these new therapies. The Government, alongside our industry, clinicians, patients and scientists, should explore how Ireland can be a location for the discovery, development and adoption of cell and gene therapies. This can be the starting point for a Life Sciences Strategy for Ireland.
The next few months will be critical. With the Budget funding allocation, we have started on a journey towards accelerating patients’ access to new medicines. In recent years, our performance on the adoption of new medicines in the health services has slipped badly. We will shortly begin negotiations with the State on a new multi-year medicines supply Agreement. That should be based on ‘joint funding’, with industry and the State sharing responsibility for funding new treatments. If we can get the funding model right, the delays we have seen in patients accessing new medicines should be over. We owe it to Irish patients to get this right.
Paul Reid is President of the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association.