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Ireland must make bio-innovation count by investing in tomorrow’s cures

Bernard Mallee

Director of Communications and Advocacy, Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association

Ireland is a place where innovation, for instance innovative medicine, thrives and foreign direct investment finds a home. As soon as thirty years ago, just 5,200 worked in an industry characterised by basic manufacturing. At the present time, the originator pharmaceutical companies directly employ 30,000 people.

All the top 10 global pharmaceutical companies in fact operate in Ireland – the likes of GSK, Pfizer, AbbVie, Novartis, MSD and many more. They are part of Ireland’s enterprise ecosystem, with a huge impact in societal, economic and human health terms, putting us as part of a globally networked system of innovation

Over the past 10 years, the originator pharmaceutical industry has invested all in all €10 billion in manufacturing and research sites around the country. That represents close to the biggest wave of investment in new biotechnology facilities anywhere in the world. Between 2003 and 2018, the number of biotechnology manufacturing sites jumped from two to twenty.

However, these numbers are impressive – but they are no cause for complacency. Ireland must continue to pursue excellence in manufacturing and research, and adapt public policy to the promise of innovation in new medicines. If we do that, our industry will remain a reliable source of high-quality, well-paid jobs well into the future.

Investing smartly to meet the needs of our ageing population

As Ireland’s population ages and medical conditions grow more complex, healthcare will come under increasing pressure to deliver the same, or better, services. The task will be to invest smartly. How we plan for the adoption of bio-technology innovation into the health services must be coordinated centrally by the State. For that reason, we have called for the appointment of a Chief Innovation Officer at the Department of Health. 

We must be quicker at ensuring access to new medicines

Through innovation, we can develop therapies that, in the long run, will save the system money by reducing hospital stays. In the short term, these new innovative medicines – if they are made available efficiently to patients – will in short change people’s lives for the better. But, as things stand, Ireland is an outlier in Western Europe when it comes to the speed of availability of innovative medicines for patients.

Our ‘Manifesto for Better Health’ makes the case for a better environment for reimbursement and innovation. Ireland should be in the top seven countries in the EU-28 for speed of access to new medicines. Instead, it is among the slowest. This is an urgent challenge. 

Vaccines save 2.5 million children a year

Scientific advancements mean that we know more about illness than ever before. This knowledge is being translated into new ways of treating common conditions. Medical progress has led to a dramatic decline in death rates for diseases such as cancer, HIV, polio and measles. Hepatitis C has virtually been cured by innovative medicines. 

Today, if diagnosed early, leukaemia can be driven into remission with a once-daily treatment. Vaccines have rid the world of smallpox, driven polio to the brink of eradication, and virtually eliminated measles, diphtheria and rubella in many parts of the world. Vaccines save the lives of over 2.5 million children every year. This is the dividend of innovation. 

Transforming patient care

Promising medicines in development have the potential to transform care, helping patients live longer and with a better quality of life. In some cases, medicines could prevent further illness, reduce the need for other treatments or even offer a cure. 

To capture the value of innovation, we need better outcomes data. The structuring and use of data are among the most promising projects for the future of medical progress. Irish hospitals and healthcare professionals hold a huge volume of historical data. This data, properly mined and applied, could lead to the development of a predictive and preventative approach to medicine.

An exciting global wave of medical innovation is breaking around the world. Ireland should be ready to catch it. With the right policy moves matched to industry pioneers, we can have a leadership role in powering patient care through innovation. 

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