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Countries jockey to host EU medicines agency

Timing of medical regulator’s move from UK remains unclear

Six countries are already lining up to host the European Medicines Agency, the EU drug regulator, in the likely event of it being moved from London after Brexit.

There is no fixed procedure for choosing the locations of European agencies, observers say, and no precedent at all for an agency such as the EMA having to move. “If the decision has to be made, better to make it quickly,” says Luca Pani, the director-general of the Italian Medicines Agency. He adds that, in his view, the EMA will be legally required to leave London within two years of the UK triggering Article 50, which prime minister Theresa May has said the country will do by March 2017.

But others say that the process of shifting the EMA and its 890 highly-specialised staff could take up to a decade, spilling into a multi-year “transition period” that the UK will seek to negotiate to smoothen its departure.

Fernand Sauer, a French pharmacologist who was involved in creating the EMA in 1995 and became its first director, says that the process of choosing London as its original location was “purely political”. He recalls being shown the national bids for the EMA in 1995, and describes their content as “totally random”.

The strongest contender at the time was Spain, Sauer says, which offered access to facilities in the Barcelona Olympic site. But the UK, which was eventually chosen, “never offered anything”. The same applied to Sweden and its successful bid for the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control in 2005, Sauer says.

Based in London since its foundation, the EMA has the crucial role of regulating one of Europe’s most important industries. Its geographical location is vital, commentators say, because it is a magnet for companies that want to stay close to their main regulator. The EMA is one of the largest and most important regulatory bodies in the world: the EU makes up 27 per cent of the global market for pharmaceuticals.

Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Spain and Sweden have already said publicly that they want to host the EMA, and more countries are expected to join them.

According to the chief executive of the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association, Oliver O’Connor, Ireland’s case will be “business continuity”, with Dublin’s language and close proximity offering the option of a staggered move out of London.

Pani says Italy’s selling point will be the creation of a “technopolis” in the centre of Milan, to surround a new base for the EMA. Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi is said to be personally backing the bid.

Henrik Vestergaard, deputy chief executive of the Danish Association of the Pharmaceutical Industry, says he hopes that “when the EU makes the decision to relocate, they look at the rational reasons instead of just making too political a choice”.

And Karolina Antonov, an analyst at LIF, the trade association for the research-based pharmaceutical industry in Sweden, says that the strength of her country’s academic and industrial base could swing the decision in its favour.

Though they’ve said little so far, France and Germany each have strong drug industries, and may just be biding their time until it becomes clearer how the UK’s relationship with the EU will develop.

Moving a major regulator such as the EMA is likely to be a painful experience; even officials in some of the countries competing for its location confess they’d rather it stayed put. Uprooting the offices in Canary Wharf—where the agency signed a 25-year lease in 2015—will disrupt its existing relationships and, observers say, could hit consumers by delaying approvals of new drugs.

The idea of the EMA staying in London after Brexit may appear outlandish at first, notes Sauer. But he concedes that anything can happen in politics. If the UK chose a Norway-style relationship with the EU and remained within the jurisdiction of the EMA, Sauer says, it might yet prove possible: “It would be an easy solution to a very complex situation.”

This article also appeared in Research Europe