COVID-19 and the Growing Need for Dual-Source Supply Chains

With lessons learned from the pandemic, Northern Ireland is poised to become a location of choice for advanced pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturing.

The global response to COVID-19 has been awe-inspiring, with the life sciences industry rising to address this once-in-a-century challenge.

I am particularly proud of Northern Ireland’s contributions during the crisis. Our manufacturing sector quickly pivoted and is punching above its weight developing COVID-19 personal protective equipment (PPE), testing, diagnostics, and medical equipment. In one such example, County Antrim’s Randox Laboratories worked alongside Bosch to develop a rapid test in less than six weeks. It’s one of the world’s first fully automated molecular diagnostic tests and can detect a SARS-CoV-2 infection in under 2.5 hours.

The pandemic will profoundly and permanently change the life sciences sector, and one shift evolving in real time is the re-evaluation of global supply chains. Exploring the potential benefits of near-shoring and dual-source pipelines has become a priority to preserve the manufacturing and distribution of critical pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and supplies.

In this context, Northern Ireland is poised to expand its global impact as a location of choice for second-source manufacturing. 

Attractive Region for Life Sciences and Second-Source Manufacturing

With science-driven manufacturing, a long history of advanced engineering and manufacturing excellence, and a time zone centrally located between major global markets, Northern Ireland offers many advantages for companies looking to grow while diversifying and safeguarding their supply chains.

The Northern Ireland workforce is highly educated, English-speaking, and provides a talented pool to draw from, with both Ulster University and Queen’s University Belfast recognized as bioscience leaders. Our workers have adapted to working remotely and are supported by infrastructure necessary for effective digital operations. Operating costs are on average 20–30% lower than the rest of the UK and Europe. Salary costs are approximately 50% less than in the United States, but with science workers maintaining an excellent quality of life.

Companies investing in the region can access expertise and grants for product development, employment, training, and R&D. For life and health science companies in particular, R&D and manufacturing activities within Northern Ireland have remained robust throughout the pandemic, thanks to our infrastructure and ability to manage our own COVID-19 measures outside of the wider UK and EU response. This has enabled companies to maintain and even enhance their competitive position on a global stage.

Many international companies have realized the opportunities offered by this low-risk, pro-business environment. In 2019, investment in Northern Ireland grew by more than 60%, the largest increase ever, and the current pipeline continues to grow. More and more, despite or perhaps because of COVID-19, we are hearing from interesting life science and pharmaceutical companies looking for the right place to develop healthcare products and technologies.

Ecosystem That Drives Growth

Our universities, companies, regulatory authorities, and healthcare systems are highly connected and collaborate intimately in a way that doesn’t happen in larger countries or less integrated areas of a similar size. Pharma companies operating in Northern Ireland can support all aspects of the development cycle, from discovery through preclinical and clinical research to commercial manufacturing and life cycle management. 

Key to this is the direct link to the UK’s National Health Service, one of the world’s largest and most respected health services, and Northern Ireland’s data-driven, “closed loop” healthcare system, which has electronic health records for the population of 1.88 million, covering all phases of life.

Longitudinal data of this scope exists in very few places and offers opportunities for comparative efficacy research and data mining. Through ethical collaboration agreements, researchers can access this information to find ideal patient pools, even for more complicated diseases, creating an ideal environment for the co-creation, testing, evidence generation, and adoption of healthcare innovations.

Northern Ireland’s two major universities, Ulster University and Queen’s University Belfast, offer globally competitive research expertise, including 17 research centers between them, and an excellent track record in commercializing technologies.

The more than 250 life and health sciences companies operating in Northern Ireland take advantage of this ecosystem, including global names like Randox, Almac, Norbrook, Stryker, G&L Scientific, and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries. Small and medium-sized enterprises are an integral part of the cluster as well, including ProAxsis, Exploristics, Cirdan Imaging, CV6 Therapeutics, Fusion Antibodies, Intelesens, Kainos, Diaceutics, and AxisBioServices.

Together, companies of all sizes are focused on advancing pharma, diagnostics, precision medicine, connected health, and medical devices. This dedication has bred success, with the industry generating a turnover of more than $1.41 billion in 2019 and employing more than 8,500 people.

Expertise in Digital and Connected Health

There are also emerging cross-sector strengths in areas like AI and data analytics and existing expertise in areas like cybersecurity and software development. The intersection of so many fields, made possible because of the manageable size of the business environment, breeds innovation.

Ulster University’s Connected Health Innovation Centre is at the forefront of business-led connected health research, with a focus on the management of long-term chronic conditions. For example, they are doing significant work in the area of sensors, from those that monitor a patient’s health status and identify early signs of illness to those that track electrical responses in the brains of patients with neurodegenerative diseases, providing real-time feedback during clinical studies.

Underpinning the industry is a commitment to cybersecurity, never more important given recent cyber threats targeting organizations developing COVID-19 vaccines. Northern Ireland is home to the UK’s National Centre for Secure Information Technologies, located at Queen’s University Belfast, and has one of the highest concentrations of cyber employment in Europe, beneficial for companies looking to safeguard intellectual property and clinical data.

This integration of academic research, clinical practice, and technological expertise allows scientific programs to link directly to clinical outcomes, helping companies in Northern Ireland accelerate development efforts and be more successful much sooner than competitors.

This integration of academic research, clinical practice, and technological expertise allows scientific programs to link directly to clinical outcomes, helping companies in Northern Ireland accelerate development efforts and be more successful much sooner than competitors.

Growing the Northern Ireland Economy

The Northern Ireland government proactively supports the life sciences sector. As the region’s economic development agency, Invest Northern Ireland helps companies looking to establish operations in the region by brokering collaborations with local business, academia, and health organizations, providing funding, and advising on how best to scale. Essentially, Invest Northern Ireland is a catalyst helping companies identify the locations, people, and resources that will ensure success.

We’re currently excited about the recently launched “City Deals,” which include $1.54 billion worth of funding —an investment of $1,000 per person — in economic growth projects. Many will significantly enhance Northern Ireland life and health science capabilities, including new institutes for clinical research, digital healthcare technology, and longitudinal healthcare data capture.

Brexit and Beyond

As many are aware, Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. There’s been speculation about how the UK leaving the EU at the end of this year will impact Northern Ireland.

Although final agreements have yet to be inked, we anticipate that Northern Ireland may be the only jurisdiction with UK and EU regulatory overlap. This would provide the unique ability to trial, manufacture, and commercialize products and pharmaceuticals for both markets from one location. Nowhere else in the UK or EU will that 2-in-1 opportunity be possible.

This dual-market scenario would certainly enhance Northern Ireland’s potential for second-source manufacturing, but no matter how the policy shakes out, the building blocks for strengthening your supply chain remain: talent, time zone, and the intersection of science, technology, and manufacturing. 

Kevin Holland

Kevin Holland is CEO of Invest Northern Ireland. He previously served as Minister-Counselor for Life Sciences, Health and Social Care at the British Embassy in Beijing from 2016 to 2019. Previously, Holland was with Baxter for 15 years where he led the company’s businesses in Russia, Turkey, the Middle East and Africa. Prior to that, he held European R&D management roles at Unilever. Holland graduated from Oxford University with an MA in chemistry and received his MBA from the IMD Business School in Switzerland.