By Michael Erman
NEW YORK (Reuters) -Pfizer Inc is investing more than $2.5 billion at its drug making plants in Belgium and Ireland, gearing up to launch new products it hopes can replace lost revenue as patents expire and COVID-19 vaccine sales decline.
The drugmaker said on Friday it plans to spend more than 1.2 billion euros ($1.26 billion) to expand its Puurs, Belgium, manufacturing site, matching the investment at its Dublin, Ireland, plant announced on Thursday.
In Belgium, some projects related to the investment announced on Friday are already underway, with others planned to begin early next year, Pfizer said in a press release. At the plant in Ireland, expansion is expected to begin in 2024 and to be completed in 2027, the company said.
The Puurs site has played a key role in the production of COVID-19 vaccine shots Pfizer developed with its German partner BioNTech using messenger RNA (mRNA) technology.
Output started there in late 2020 when Europe and the United States began rolling out shots to tackle the pandemic.
"It is all aligned with the growth of our pipeline," Pfizer Chief Global Supply Officer Mike McDermott told Reuters.
"If you project out the capacity modeling for these two sites ... you'll find a gap in our ability to serve that (growth). So this is proactive investment," he said on Thursday.
Pfizer's revenue is expected to top $100 billion this year - more than double its pre-pandemic level - on the strength of sales of its COVID-19 vaccine and treatment Paxlovid.
But COVID-related sales are expected to drop sharply over the next few years, and Pfizer also faces the loss of patent protections for some big-selling medicines after 2025, such as cancer treatment Ibrance and arthritis drug Xeljanz.
The sizeable investment and creation of jobs in Europe comes at a critical time for the region as companies struggle with soaring costs of energy, labour, raw materials and credit, fuelling worries over a recession.
The crisis has hit energy-intensive industries, such as fertilisers and chemicals, particularly hard, prompting some to shift manufacturing to locations where cheap energy is abundant, such as the United States.
Drug manufacturers have also warned that energy costs risk undermining the recent push to boost generic medicines production in Europe to make the region more self-sufficient.
Pfizer hopes to introduce as many as 19 new medicines over the next year and a half, including treatments for ulcerative colitis and migraines, as well as its vaccine for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
"Our portfolio is strong and requires an expansion of our network to accommodate these new products that will really make an impact," McDermott said.
The new products produced at the plants will cover various therapeutic areas including rare diseases, inflammation and immunology, he said.
The expansion in Ireland will add around 400 to 500 jobs and allow it to double the amount of drug substance it makes at the site, which produces material for complex biologic drugs and vaccines.
In Belgium, Pfizer is expanding the Puurs site's capacity to finalize and bottle doses of drug substance. It is also expanding its packaging and cold storage capabilities there.
The new projects will result in an additional 250 jobs at the Belgian plant, whose workforce has grown to 4,500 people from 2,800 before the pandemic.
Pfizer has also been spending significantly to expand its manufacturing capacity in the United States. The New York-based drugmaker has announced plans to expand its Kalamazoo, Michigan, Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and McPherson, Kansas, plants.
It has also said it will spend close to $1 billion to boost its ability to produce gene therapies at sites in Massachusetts and North Carolina.
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(Reporting by Michael Erman in Maplewood, NJ; Editing by Josephine Mason, Alexander Smith and Mark Potter)