Pfizer adding dozens of jobs at Ireland plant that was slated to close last year

Pfizer recently gave up plans to try to turn its cholesterol fighter Lipitor into an OTC drug, but sales of the drug have remained surprisingly strong for a product that went off patent nearly four years ago. That has led Pfizer ($PFE) to add jobs at a factory in Ireland that two years ago teetered on the brink of closure.

Seamus Fives, site leader for the plant in Little Island plant in County Cork, as well as a nearby facility in Ringaskiddy, tells the Irish Examiner the two plants together will add 40 people. He said he hopes to see the hires made by Christmas.

The plant, which makes the API for Lipitor and other drugs, has been spared as global demand for the cholesterol-lowering drug has exceeded initial expectations following its patent loss nearly four years ago. Strength from a couple of cancer drugs has also secured the plant's future, the newspaper reports. The newspaper did not say which cancer drug specifically, but Pfizer's breast cancer drug Ibrance has been exceeding expectations. Approved early by the FDA, the drug pulled in $140 million in the second quarter, nearly double analyst estimates of $72 million.

The hiring plans represent quite a turnaround for a plant that just two years ago was on Pfizer's hit list of facilities that would close in the wake of losing exclusivity for longtime top seller Lipitor. The drugmaker announced its plan to consolidate its manufacturing in Ireland in May 2013, expecting to be fully out of the Little Island plant by August 2014. At the time the closure was announced, the plant had about 150 employees there. Now Pfizer reports a staff of 180.

An "unexpected increase" in Lipitor demand, initially kept the plant running beyond its 2014 closure date. Workers also agreed to changes at the facility, which Pfizer said made it more competitive. Earlier this year, Pfizer said the closure had been put on hold for the foreseeable future. Now, as demand has remained firm, the future includes more positions. Pfizer, which has long been manufacturing in Ireland, has about 3,200 people at 6 sites there, the newspaper said.

While Lipitor sales have slid considerably from the $10 billion the drug generated in 2011, the year it lost patent exclusivity, its reputation has kept it strong in some global markets. Sales for the first half of this year were $950 million.

Pfizer had hoped that it might add about $1 billion in extra sales a year if it could get the FDA to approve Lipitor in the U.S. as an over-the-counter drug, something it has done with some widely used products. But the U.S. drugmaker killed those plans in July after a yearlong trial in which it monitored the behavior of 1,300 patients to see if they could be counted on to control their cholesterol on their own, to keep it regularly checked and take the appropriate steps if it was high. Pfizer found they couldn't.

- read the Irish Examiner story