The world's biggest drugmaker Pfizer is shutting down its R&D facility in Sandwich, Kent, potentially affecting 2,400 jobs and dealing a huge blow to the UK's research sector.

Explaining its decision, the drugs giant said it needs to "create a more focused and sustainable R&D engine for innovation", which involves pulling the plug on certain therapeutic areas such as allergy and respiratory, which are based at Sandwich, its largest research site in Europe.  

The majority of the 2,400 workers based at the site will be made redundant over the next 18-24 months, although the company said it will strive to transfer "several hundred positions to other Pfizer sites or to external partners", as well as build partnerships that can use the facilities and buildings, "in an effort to preserve jobs and activity on the site".

Ruth McKernan, site head at Sandwich, was keen to stress that the decision "is no reflection on the site, the workforce or the operating environment in the UK". But the news marks a real punch, and a somewhat embarrassing one, for the government, which has been trying to encourage investment in the country as a site for R&D, and has fueled concern that the country may lose out to more attractive destinations such as India.

Unsurprisingly, the government was quick to shrug off any suggestions that Pfizer's decision had any reflection on the UK as an environment for R&D. “There is no doubt that the decision is being taken not because of some UK-based issue, but because the company has decided to exit some whole areas of endeavour, like allergies and respiratory diseases,” Prime Minister David Cameron reportedly told the House of Commons. 

Depressing news

"The government will do everything they can, co-ordinated by my right hon. friend the Minister for Universities and Science and the head of the Office for Life Sciences, to try and make sure that we make the best of a depressing piece of news," he added.

But in a growing political storm over the issue, Shadow business secretary John Denham said Pfizer's decision marks a personal snub for Cameron, and he called on the government to "get a grip" on the economy, which the latest data suggest actually shrunk in the final months of last year.

"We have a huge advantage in fundamental and applied research and the NHS has huge potential for properly regulated clinical trials, yet one of the world's leading manufacturers is closing a major plant here, in Kent. Only a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister told us how he had personally been on the phone to the leadership of Pfizer to encourage them to invest and employ people in the UK. The truth is that the Prime Minister has been snubbed," Denham said. 

"The government and the Business Department were not players in that huge decision. Whatever the immediate reason for Pfizer's action, this warns us all that nothing can be taken for granted if this country is to remain strong in this global industry," he warned.

Business Secretary Vince Cable also described the news as "extremely disappointing", but said he will be meet with Pfizer, other companies and local representatives "as a matter of urgency to discuss innovative ideas for continuing R&D activities in this very well equipped facility, and how the key strands of the R&D portfolio based at Sandwich can best engage with academic teams across the UK".

World class sector

Others were lining up to defend the UK as an R&D base and allay fears that the country is loosing its foothold in the arena. Richard Barker, director-general of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry said "we feel very strongly that the UK bioscience environment is world class and, with the changes underway in clinical research, we have the basis for on-going leadership in life sciences", while president Simon Jose added: "Creation of a Patent Box will further strengthen the UK’s position as a primary location for high-tech manufacturing, research and development”.

But the Association still warned that, "looking at the bigger picture, there is an urgent need for the UK to make itself more attractive for investment, or risk growth in the world’s leading science-based industry going  elsewhere".

The BioIndustry Association also expressed its disappointment on Pfizer's exit from Sandwich. But however grave, the news does not change the fundamentals of the UK as a location for R&D it said, noting that the country "is home to four of the top 10 universities in the world and 19 of the top 100, one of the world’s three major financial centres, a stable of quality service providers, world class research charities and a rich heritage of globally recognised medical research".

“The UK remains the second home next to the US for the pharmaceutical and biotech industry and indeed Pfizer’s commitment to their Cambridge, UK site – where they have announced there will be a new Pain and Sensory Disorders Unit – as their global hub in Europe demonstrates this," added BIA chief executive Nigel Gaymond.