Featured Article 19 Jan 2012

The Irish Times
January 14th 2012

It may conjure up images of vain Hollywood stars, but to workers at Allergan in Westport, where much of the world’s Botox is made, it’s a wonder drug that can bring jobs and prosperity, writes MARESE McDONAGH

MICHAEL RING has been inundated with phone calls this week, after headline writers declared Westport, the Minister for Tourism’s home town, to be the Botox capital of the world. But the calls were not from potential visitors seeking eternal youth. Most of those who contacted him in the days after the pharmaceutical giant Allergan announced a major expansion had more worrying them than fine lines.

Allergan’s announcement of a €274 million investment will mean 250 construction jobs in the small Mayo town, as well as 200 permanent posts to be created over the next four years, and many desperate people are wondering if they could get work in one of the prettiest towns in the west of Ireland. “I was inundated with calls, but the turnover there is very low, because they are such good jobs,” says Ring.

He isn’t the only one scratching his head about how a product so many people associate with the quest for eternal youth has become such big business. Simon Cowell has described Botox as “no more unusual than toothpaste”, and although not all celebrities are as open about their habit, spotting their tell-tale lack of wrinkles is now one of the most entertaining aspects of watching some stars of the big and small screen.

“It is unbelievable when you think of all the film stars and all the pop celebrities who use it, and it comes from a small town in the west of Ireland,” says the Mayo TD proudly. And according to the company, although a small part of the process takes place in California, essentially Westport produces the world’s supply of Botox. This may be why visitors to the sprawling plant must sign a confidentiality agreement and why journalists covering last Monday’s press conference were kept safely across the road, in a hotel, while the Taoiseach and other dignitaries put on white coats to see the process up close.

The company is keen to stress that just half of its best-known product – a low-dose form of the neurotoxin that causes botulism – is used for cosmetic purposes; the remainder has therapeutic applications and has, for example, been licensed by the Irish Medicines Board for the treatment of chronic migraine, and for overactive bladder caused by multiple sclerosis or some spinal cord injuries.

Pat O’Donnell, the managing director of Allergan Pharmaceuticals Ireland, predicted that in the not too distant future this balance will shift further, and 60 per cent of the output will be for therapeutic rather than cosmetic purposes. He explained that just as the product’s capacity to smooth away crow’s feet was discovered by accident, its migraine-busting properties were also discovered in the course of its being used for cosmetic purposes.

Botox was originally developed to treat eye conditions such as uncontrollable blinking; when it was injected into the side of the eye, patients noticed that laughter lines were disappearing as quickly as the blinking.

After clinical trials to get the green light for such cosmetic uses, people started using Botox to remove frown marks. “Then patients started saying, ‘I am happy with the results and by the way my migraine is gone,’ ” says O’Donnell.

The company seems a little coy about Botox’s popularity with people who are unhappy with their appearance. It lists among its worldwide specialities “breast aesthetics” and “obesity intervention” – breast implants and gastric bands. Some of its implants are designed for use in postsurgical reconstruction, and O’Donnell stresses that many of its other products treat a range of debilitating conditions and so improve people’s lives. He is particularly excited about Ozurdex, which is injected into the back of the eye to fight macular oedema, which causes severe visual impairment. The product is being tested for age-related macular degeneration and has huge potential in this area, he believes.

Unsurprisingly, few people in Westport care if others are sniffy about the town’s best-known product, and the mood this week is buoyant, not least because the announcement makes the 850 or so staff already there feel secure.

When the former Fianna Fáil minister Ray Burke opened the Allergan plant, in 1977, he needed no special intuition to realise that the company had a future in the town. “He commented on the day he did the opening that the scaffolding was already up for the next phase,” says Neill O’Neill, spokesman for Westport Chamber of Commerce and managing editor of the Mayo News . O’Neill’s father, Colam, is a former MD at Allergan, and two of his brothers work with the company. “Actually, they both met their wives in Allergan,” says O’Neill. “I would say that every year there are a few Allergan weddings in Westport.”

Unsurprisingly, every businessperson in the town praises a company that started with a workforce of about 25, making contact-lens cleaning solutions, and built to a peak of almost 1,000 staff until its sole – but large – blip, in 2004, when 325 workers were made redundant. This week’s announcement will mean a return to that peak workforce.

“When they arrived, Westport, like a lot of towns on the west of Ireland, was on its knees,” says Sean Staunton, who served on the town council for 37 years. “They were very welcome, but there were no great expectations at the time.”

Westport is well and truly in the beauty business: it has won the national Tidy Towns award three times over 10 years, and the surrounding scenery keeps 10 hotels in business, providing an estimated 1,000 jobs in tourism and catering.

O’Donnell, a native of nearby Kilmeenagh who started at Allergan as a lab technician, in 1980, recalls that at the time, if you fancied a swim, it meant a trip to Claremorris if you did not want to brave the chilly Atlantic. “Now every hotel in town has a pool.”

Joe Cororan, a hotelier, believes it is due in no small part to Allergan that so many of the hotels are busy and that the season now extends throughout the year. But he stresses that people in Westport are suffering, too. “There have only been two construction project here in the last three years – a school and the Lidl supermarket – so these jobs will be very welcome.”

40 shades of blue: The Viagra effect in Ireland

There was a time when beef and Baileys Irish Cream were the first things that sprang to mind when we thought of Irish exports. But, as the news from Co Mayo underlined this week, almost 60 per cent of our exports are now in pharmaceuticals and organic chemicals.

Botox and Viagra are among the main products, both “lifestyle pharmacueticals” that also have medical applications. (Botox can treat chronic migraine and overactive bladder.)

Until a few years ago Allergan, the maker of Botox, also manufactured breast implants at a plant in Arklow, but that part of the business has been transferred to Costa Rica.

The sector appears to have thrived even in the teeth of the recession. Ireland exported €49 billion of organic chemicals and pharmaceutical products in 2010, accounting for 55 per cent of merchandise exports. In the first half of 2011, this grew to 58 per cent.

In 2008, as the downturn began to strangle the Irish economy, the late Dr Garret FitzGerald wrote in The Irish Times that practically all our exports “other than Viagra” had stagnated.

Pfizer started manufacturing Viagra in 1998. The first oral pill for impotence, it became the fastest-selling drug in medical history. The company transferred the manufacture of the drug’s active ingredient, sildenafil citrate, to Ringaskiddy, once a quiet fishing village near Cork but now a hub for the pharmaceutical industry. From there the compound is taken to France and the US, to be converted into little blue pills.

About 30 million men in 120 countries take Viagra, which has made Pfizer the largest drug company in the world. The drug was discovered in the 1980s by scientists in England struggling for a way to control high blood pressure. Researchers were puzzled when the test patients refused to return their trial pills. When they found out why, they began working on it as a treatment for erectile dysfunction.

Content supplied with the permission of The Irish Times Ltd. For more see www.irishtimes.com

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