IN THE second pharmaceutical jobs announcement of 2014, Alexion Pharmaceutical has announced it is expanding into Athlone.
Alexion, the Connecticut-headquartered drug company that recently opened an operation in Dublin, will create 40 jobs with the opening of a new facility in the mid-west town. It comes just weeks after Aspen Pharma announced 42 new highly skilled jobs in Dublin.
US-based Alexion, which has a market capitalisation of about €15bn, is best known for its flagship drug Soliris. The medicine treats two rare blood diseases that affect fewer than 20,000 people in the world. It announced last summer that it was opening a new lab, office and supply chain facility in Dublin.
Now the specialist drug maker, which came second in the 'Forbes' list of the "world's most innovative companies" in 2012 (second only to Salesforce, which also has an Irish operation), plans to open a vialling facility in Ireland. Vialling involves the bottling of medicine.
That two buildings on the outskirts of Athlone have changed hands among three of the world's biggest drug companies says something important about Ireland.
The country is unrivalled in terms of investment from multinational drug manufacturers.
Ireland began luring drug companies in the 1970s, using its 12.5pc corporate tax rate to attract the world's largest pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfizer, as well as MSD, the second-biggest in the US, and Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly.
By 2011, the country was the largest net exporter of pharmaceuticals and medical products in the world, according to Dublin-based industry group PharmaChemical Ireland. Now nine of the 10 biggest drug companies in the world have Irish facilities. Products made in the country include erectile dysfunction drug Viagra and wrinkle-smoother Botox.
But the strength of Ireland's drugs industry has in some ways turned into a weakness. Export numbers have been slashed in the past three years as a number of major Irish-produced drugs, like Pfizer's cholesterol treatment Lipitor, as well as Viagra, lost their intellectual property protections (patents). Export volumes fell by 5.7pc in 2013 alone, largely due to the effects of this so-called patent cliff. This trend shows no sign of stopping, experts say.
The Government, in response, has changed its tack. After years of trying to persuade massive multinationals to set up huge production facilities for "white pill" drugs, the Department of Jobs and IDA Ireland are instead targeting biopharmaceutical companies.
Biopharmaceuticals, which use living organisms, tend to be more expensive and difficult to produce – meaning the staff involved are higher-skilled and the facilities are more difficult to shut down.
Examples include Lantus, a diabetes treatment partly made in Waterford by Sanofi Genzyme, and Botox, the wrinkle freezer produced by Pfizer in Mayo.
Alexion is another example – its flagship biopharmaceutical drug Soliris costs as much as €300,000 a year per patient, among the world's most expensive therapies.