In Conversation With Mr Oliver O’Connor, CEO, Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association

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Oliver O’Connor has been Chief Executive of the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association since 2015. His career has covered health finance and economics consultancy, policy formation, communications and media, international financial services and public service. He was a Special Advisor to the Minister for Health / Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Mary Harney, from 2001-10.

1. What is the biggest threat to pharmaceuticals companies operating in Ireland at the moment?
I prefer to think about opportunities and a wholistic story as told in our new “Innovate for Life” campaign. Pharma companies in Ireland employ more than 30,000 people directly. The top ten pharma companies in the world manufacture here. Investment has topped over $10bn in recent years. So the environment in Ireland has been and remains good, on the evidence – except for the disappointing feature that Ireland has been slow and late in bringing new medicines to patients relative to peer countries in western Europe. This is a problem which we want to address in partnership with Government. For the country, it would be a mistake to assume that the next ten years will be the same as the last 10-15 in terms of investment, jobs, innovation and growth from Ireland. Technology is changing rapidly. The best places for pharma as part of life sciences of the future will be where the conditions are right for all of discovery, manufacturing, and adoption of new therapies.

2. Is there a lack of Irish graduates to fill high quality pharmaceutical posts?
Recruitment is getting tighter for sure. The positions on offer in bioprocessing and pharma more widely are skilled and well-rewarded. Naturally the pool of talent extends beyond Irish shores. The National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training (www.nibrt.ie) makes a valuable contribution to developing and upskilling people to work in bioprocessing; an initiative that the US Jefferson University is partnering with to learn from. There is a role for all in the industry to encourage more people to think of working in our industry. We can raise our profile and communicate the value and worth of working in an industry that has such an important impact on people’s lives and health. As an industry we will make a specific input to the next iteration of the Government’s Future Jobs strategy as part of our BioPharma Ambition 2020 event next March.

3. Does Ireland have a contingency plan in place for major medicine shortages?
Ireland has a well-developed medicines shortages framework implemented by the HPRA, which has been in place irrespective of the Brexit-related challenges. On average there are about 45 notices of medicines shortages per month which are then managed in this framework. In regard to Brexit, our industry has put a lot of investment into adjusting for any scenario and is working very closely with the HPRA, HSE and Department of Health to minimise risks to supply. Given those preparations, there is enough stock of medicines in the country to cope with a disorderly, cliff-edge Brexit. The Government’s most recent publication on Brexit preparedness in July showed the readiness of the country, with the key message that we don’t have shortages attributable to Brexit.

4. When is the current IPHA/DOH agreement due for renewal and what challenges do you anticipate?
Under the 2016-20 Agreement, negotiations on a possible successor are due to begin in February 2020. The key challenge will be to deal in a concrete way with Ireland lagging most of western Europe in access for patients to medicines under reimbursement. No-one is content with the situation; it has to be addressed, and this has to be done within the budget parameters of the State. We are advocating the creation of an explicit medicines budget; a real multi-annual funding commitment; and a policy that Ireland should be among the top seven EU member states in speed of access to new medicines. The summer economic statement of the Government shows that the economy is in a healthy state, enabling us to cope with the real challenges of a disorderly Brexit and also offering the ability to plan properly to adopt new medicines.

5. What is IPHA doing to accelerate access to new medicines for Irish patients?
We have brought forward the evidence of how Ireland performs relative to western Europe and highlighting with the Department of Health and HSE our willingness to engage in joint work to understand the causes of our lag in access time with a view to adopting measures to address it. We cannot address this alone. It needs dialogue and partnership focused on achieving a common goal, faster access for patients within a predictable and adequately-funded medicines budget.

6. What impact, if any, does current US government policy have on pharmaceutical products here in Ireland?
It is an interesting question, because US policy affects many aspects of the pharmaceutical industry in Ireland, from regulation to exporting and investment. From my perspective at IPHA I see more consistency than change across the whole spectrum.

7. What do IPHA member companies have to do more of in order to put Ireland more firmly on the clinical trial global footprint?
We have to make it easier for researchers, organisations and of course patients to participate in clinical trials. IPHA will support work of the Clinical Research Development Ireland and Cancer Trials Ireland to highlight this.

8. Is the Irish Biopharma industry on track to create 8,400 additional jobs by 2020?
I can’t be sure about precise, measured progress towards this; but recent developments and investments are on the positive side. That will continue with hard work, policy support and understanding the changing needs of life science and biopharma development.

9. What is the most rewarding and most challenging aspects of your role as CEO of IPHA?
Most rewarding is to work with people in the industry and all our stakeholders on issues that lead to a positive impact on health and life of people in Ireland by the uptake of biopharmaceutical innovations. Most challenging: being resilient when the pace of change and the uptake of solutions are not as fast as one would wish.

10. What do you do to unwind?
I run, hill-walk, socialise with friends and family, play guitar(s).

11. Have you a favourite holiday destination?
Wexford beaches and country side. Anywhere near family. Anywhere with stronger sunlight in winter!

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