Merck says Keytruda's explosive growth prompts need for new Ireland plant with 350 jobs

Keytruda
With Keytruda sales going gangbusters, Merck & Co. has decided to build a new plant in Ireland to meet projected demand. (Merck & Co.)

A Merck manufacturing site in Ireland that was slated to close has been saved by the drugmaker’s hot-selling cancer drug Keytruda.

Merck & Co. today said it will build a new biologics plant at its Swords site near Dublin to produce the blockbuster immuno-oncology therapy. It didn't disclose the size of the investment but said it would create 350 jobs as part of the deal. 

The site was slated to be closed or sold last year. The company, known as MSD outside the U.S., is shooting to have the new facility operational by 2021 and producing commercial products the next year, a goal the company understands is aggressive, a spokeswoman said in an email, confirming reports in Irish media.

Free Daily Newsletter

Like this story? Subscribe to FiercePharma!

Biopharma is a fast-growing world where big ideas come along daily. Our subscribers rely on FiercePharma as their must-read source for the latest news, analysis and data on drugs and the companies that make them. Sign up today to get pharma news and updates delivered to your inbox and read on the go.

“It’s a bold statement by MSD, but that’s our target,” Ger Brennan, managing director of MSD Human Health, told The Irish Times.

RELATED: Merck's Keytruda resumes regulatory hot streak with stomach cancer approval

He told the newspaper that Merck needed to have confidence in its supply chain since it expects significant growth in immuno-oncology.

Keytruda, which has racked up an impressive list of approvals for different cancers since its 2014 approval, is producing significant growth on its own. The PD-L1 targeted drug contributed almost 10% of Merck’s sales last year, $3.8 billion out of Merck’s $40.1 billion total. The drug posted a 172% increase year over year as it added multiple approvals, including three last May for front-line lung cancer, bladder cancer and microsatellite instability-high cancer. Weeks later, it followed up with a win in two types of recurrent or advanced gastric cancer.

The Swords site where the new plant will be built is near Dublin. Merck produced women’s health products at the facility but in 2013 added it to a list of facilities it was closing in a manufacturing and cost-cutting slim-down and moved production to the Netherlands. At the time, the facility had 570 jobs which it said would be whittled down until the site was sold or closed in 2017.

RELATED: Irish plant shutdown move puts another Merck site on the block

It put the 33-acre site up for sale last year for about $30 million, but Brennan told The Irish Times that when it projected Merck would need more Keytruda production capacity, the site came into consideration. The fact that infrastructure was in place and its history as a pharma site would speed planning gave it an edge for the new plant.

When Merck reported full-year earnings this month, the drugmaker said it would use some of the repatriated profits it would have as a result of U.S. tax reform on a $12 billion capital projects splurge over the next five years. While about $8 billion is slated for U.S. projects, the new biologics plant and 350 jobs slated in Ireland, is the first of those projects to be announced.