Sunday 25 September 2016

Ireland in the running for Alexion's next manufacturing spend

Global operations boss Julie O'Neill argues critics of its drugs' costs misunderstand how rare the diseases they treat are, says Sarah McCabe

Published 24/04/2016 | 02:30

Julie O’Neill is Alexion’s executive vice president of global operations
Julie O’Neill is Alexion’s executive vice president of global operations

Pharmaceutical-maker Alexion is weighing up Ireland for its next manufacturing investment.

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Ireland is in the running for facilities which will produce the company's new pipeline of drugs, according to one of the company's most senior executives.

"We are planning where and how production for our pipeline of drugs will happen and Ireland is being considered," said Alexion's Julie O'Neill. "I don't want to say too much as it is still early days".

Alexion has already earmarked three quarters of a billion worth of investment for Ireland since arriving in 2013.

O'Neill is Alexion's executive vice president of global operations. She joined Alexion after a 17-year career with Gilead Sciences and has just been awarded an Alumni of the Year award by UCD Business School.

Locations in and outside of Dublin will be considered for new investments, O'Neill said, adding that the company has had a very positive experience in Athlone.

Ireland must compete with countries like the US, UK, and Singapore for pharmaceutical investment, she added.

O'Neill described Singapore as particularly competitive for manufacturers of biologic drugs, which her company specialises in.

Biologic are complex drugs made from plant or animal cells.

As well as a vial-filling facility in Athlone, Alexion has an operation in College Park in Blanchardstown where it is constructing its first biologics manufacturing facility outside the US, a €450m investment.

Once this is completed, the company should employ around 500 people in Ireland; its staff currently stands at about half that.

While Ireland is a very competitive location for pharmaceutical companies to operate, it is challenged by a shortage of qualified people, O'Neill said.

"Ireland produces excellent people but it is a small pool in which a lot of companies are competing," she said.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent, O'Neill also defended her company against criticism of the cost of its drugs.

Alexion's flagship product is Soliris, often described as the most expensive drug in the world. Treatment with the drug costs around $400,000 a year per patient.

It is used in the treatment of patients with paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria, a life-threatening disease of the blood.

The HSE has been critical of the cost of Soliris.

"I think that there is a lack of understanding about just how rare these afflictions are. These are ultra-rare disorders," said O'Neill.

"Take a common condition like diabetes - diabetes will affect about 48,000 people in every one million. However, a rare disease will affect fewer than 650 people in one million - and then for an ultra-rare drug like Soliris, the figure is less than 20 per million."

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