Universities and Science Secretary David Willetts has visited Pfizer's R&D site in Sandwich, Kent, as part of the government's response to the drug giant's plans to close the facility over the next 18 months.

Willetts reportedly met with managers and other staff at the company's plant - the birthplace of highly successful drugs including Viagra (sildenafil; for erectile dysfunction) and Norvasc (amlodipine; for blood pressure) - to discuss its closure and future prospects, but stressed that the government can only put pressure on Pfizer to help encourage other firms to move into the site and help its current employees find new jobs, according to local publication www.kentonline.co.uk.

Despite reassurance from Pfizer that its decision to withdraw from Sandwich was no reflection on the UK as an environment for pharmaceutical research and development, the move has knocked the government for six, particularly as just a few weeks before Prime Minister David Cameron had reportedly been trying to encourage the drugmaker to up its investment in the country.

But Nigel Gaymond from the BioIndustry Association said Pfizer's move is more a reflection of an industry wide sea change in R&D operations, moving away from major sites "towards more tightly focused and smaller satellite operations strategically located close to academic centres of excellence". 

"With cutbacks also impacting Pfizer's US operations in Groton and New London this move should not be seen as anything specifically aimed at the UK that reflects a weakness in our innovative capacity," he stressed, and on a positive note, added: "With the government currently developing its growth strategy, I am sure that turning events such as the Sandwich closure into opportunities to boost growth in small biosciences companies will be at the forefront".

A recent report from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) agrees that the closure of Pfizer’s Sandwich lab "is part of a long-term decline in drug development, a trend that has been affecting all major UK pharmaceutical multinationals", but concludes that "radical reform of the drugs industry regulatory system must be an important part of the solution to ensure a productive and profitable pharmaceutical sector, both globally and in the UK".

Regulatory system to blame?

Researchers from the ESRC’s Innogen centre looked at the innovation models in the pharmaceutical industry and found that the trend in dwindling numbers of innovative drug candidates in R&D pipelines is being fuelled by a "lengthy and expensive regulatory system". 

"We do not need less regulation, but smarter regulation, that can deliver expected standards of safety and efficacy, are flexible enough to respond to new scientific discoveries and can do so more efficiently than our current systems within a shorter time frame," said report author Professor Joyce Tait.

Also tainting the picture is a lack of investment in early medical research. "For years now the returns generated from R&D investments made by these very large organisations have been disappointing," noted David Pinniger, investment manager at International Biotechnology Trust. "As a result, pharmaceutical companies have increasingly been outsourcing R&D to smaller biotechnology companies, who can work on the same projects faster, with greater capital efficiency, and ultimately with higher success". 

Pfizer's departure is undoubtedly a blow for the company's 2,400 employees at the site, but “while others see doom and gloom, we see a tremendous opportunity in situations like this”, Pinniger said. “As large pharmaceutical companies close down or refocus R&D facilities, attractive new drug candidates and highly skilled scientists are made available to specialist venture capital investors," creating a substantial opportunity for investment trusts.