Bidding war for European Medicines Agency intensifies as Article 50 trigger looms

23 Mar 2017 | News
The competition among cities vying to replace London as home of the drug regulator is hotting up. A decision on the new location could be announced before June

In the most fiercely fought Brexit bidding war, things are hotting up.

Out of the blocks this week in the race to land the European Medicines Agency (EMA) were Belgium and Malta, adding two more bidders to the long list of countries intent on luring the organisation and its 890 staff to their shores.

The contest to land the EMA now involves as many as 22 countries. In response to numerous requests for information from cities and governments, EMA has prepared a document on its operations and logistics and what it will require in a new home.

It has also set up a relocation task force, which reported to the EMA management board in December that up to 50 percent of employees may choose not to relocate, with a staff survey indicating the decision will be largely dependent on the choice of a new host city.

“It is easier to count the number of countries which are not bidding at this stage,” said Lorraine Nolan, chief executive officer of Ireland’s Health Products Regulatory Authority.

Ireland began courting the EMA shortly after the result of last June’s referendum was announced, and Nolan was in Brussels on Tuesday for the latest round of meetings to push the country’s candidacy.

With the British government due to file its Article 50 intention to leave the EU on 29 March, the race to land the EMA spoil has entered into a new, critical phase.

In addition to its 890 full time staff, the EMA  plays host to 4,000 national regulators and scientists, who attend 36,000 meetings each year to review and approve drugs for the EU’s 500 million people.

Only 6.63 percent of EMA’s permanent staff are British; 12.58 percent are from France, 12.36 percent from Italy, 10.67 percent from Spain and 6.4 percent from Germany.

Companies can submit a single application to the agency to obtain a marketing authorisation valid across the EU. Over 20 years, the EMA has authorised about 1,000 products for use across the 28-nation bloc plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

The departure of the prized asset from London has not been confirmed by EU officials, but seems inevitable. “It’s definitely going to move,” says Christer Asp, a former Swedish ambassador who is now coordinating the Swedish health ministry task force on the EMA. He expects a decision could be made on the EMA’s new home by June.

For now, the EMA, holder of a 25-year lease in London, remains in limbo, with the uncertainty around its future unsettling employees.  Staff morale has plunged, EMA director Guido Rasi has reported. Last November he said that, “Some good candidates are withdrawing their candidature” for EMA positions.

Beauty contest

According to officials in Brussels, six countries – Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands – appear the most likely new hosts.

“We think Ireland stacks up,” said Tommy Fanning, head of biopharmaceuticals and food at IDA Ireland, the government agency responsible for attracting foreign investment. “Lots of things fall in place, good transport links and infrastructure being the main pluses.”

According to Fanning, “There is a high level of expertise in R&D here; nine of the top 10 global pharma companies have a base in Ireland. Multinationals based in the city tell me they have no problem retaining staff.”

A big advantage for the country is English. “We are a good option for any spouses looking for a job,” said Fanning. And for those who want to stay in London, the commute to Dublin would be reasonable. 

In addition, Ireland has a strong regulatory climate. “We get it right with our health regulation the first time round,” said Fanning.

There are no official criteria set out yet for how the EU should pick a new location for the EMA, but Asp said he wants to see, “comprehensive criteria and an open, transparent decision process” once Brexit negotiations start.

This checklist of ideal qualities may be presented at the EU’s first Brexit summit scheduled for April 29, when EU countries will receive broad outline of the political principles that will guide them through the next two years of negotiations.

Like Fanning on Ireland, Asp lays out several factors which he says propels Sweden’s candidacy to the top of the list. “We have one of the most vibrant life sciences sectors in Europe centered around the Karolinska Institute,” he said. “We also have the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the EU disease control agency, so it will be possible to achieve synergies with the EMA.”

Stockholm’s hotels should also be taken into account. “EMA takes up 400 hotel rooms per night, five days a week,” said Asp. “That’s not a problem for us.”

Horse trade

Any move for the EMA would have to be approved by all EU members, including – for now - the UK, which is expected to make a case to retain the agency. The argument could run along the lines of that presented before by British MEP Kay Swinburne, who suggested last year that if the EMA were re-modelled as an intergovernmental body, like CERN, it could remain in London.

Whatever the criteria, the final decision will involve hard political bargaining. This makes life more complicated for the pitchers who, on top of building connections with the right people in Brussels, have to build as many alliances across Europe as they can.

Although the EU is obliged to keep the peace among its members by evenly distributing agencies, some countries in the race may be hard-pressed to win the requisite amount of political backing.

Bucharest or Sofia for example would find it hard to compete with Berlin and Copenhagen for airport and infrastructure quality: two of the most important qualities EMA staff mention when asked about their needs in a new home. 

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up