It’s not too often that a pharma facility closure tops the TV news headlines but that was the case in the UK yesterday following Pfizer’s announcement that it is to close the UK-based R&D centre that achieved worldwide fame as “the home of Viagra”.
Reactions have run the gamut from the near hysterical to the more soberly measured. Colin Blakemore, professor of neuroscience at the University of Oxford, called the news “a shocking wake-up call.” He added: “We must respond to this signal that one of our most important industries no longer has confidence in the future of British science.” A spokesperson for the Unite trade union said the closure would be “devastating” for the local economy, and Royal Society of Chemistry head Richard Pike said: ‘This rips out a major part of the UK’s scientific infrastructure. Even Prime Minister David Cameron called it “depressing news”.
But generally the UK government has been at pains to point out that the decision to close the Sandwich,Kent-based plant does not reflect disillusionment with UK pharma. Government Business Secretary Vince Cable said: “The company has been clear that this decision was part of its global programme of change and not based on a judgement of the UK as a location for pharmaceutical research.”
Still, the move has to be a bit of an embarrassment for the Cameron administration, given Pfizer head Ian Read, when he was heading the company’s European operations, represented the US on several key UK government advisory committees looking at the industry’s future role in the UK.
Pfizer’s site in Sandwich was opened in 1954 and saw massive expansion in the 1950s and 60s. The site covers 80 acres and employs 2,400 staff. The company has reported that its exit strategy will take 18 to 24 months to complete, as part of its wider plan to focus and sustain R&D.
The UK BioIndustry Association, while expressing its disappointment at the decision, was quick to emphasize that the news “does not change the fundamentals” of the UK as a location for R&D. More immediately critical for Pfizer employees affected by the exit, said Nigel Gaymond, BIA’s Chief Executive, “are the discussions, which Government has committed to, exploring options for continuing research and development activities at the Sandwich facility.” He added: “The Government must now do all in its power to retain these talented and skilled individuals in the UK.”
Of course, Pfizer has confronted closures before — in Ann Arbor, MI, Nagoya, Japan and in France. In each case some re-purposing of the facilities was achieved in cooperation with local governments — but the employment rolls never really came back. And with Wall Street reacting enthusiastically to the latest closure news, the company is likely to find new areas to cut on the administration side.