Pfizer has said it will retain some activity at its site at Sandwich, UK, to encourage fresh commercial interest in the site and its assets

US drug giant Pfizer has said that it will keep 350 jobs at its site in Sandwich, UK. The company said in February that it would close the historic site, where iconic erectile dysfunction drug Viagra (sildenafil) was developed, within two years, putting at risk of redundancy 2400 R&D staff.

"We are hopeful that, by retaining this core group at Sandwich, Pfizer will be the first of many companies to locate on the site" - Ruth McKernan, site head

According to a Pfizer statement, the staff will work on ’development of products in Pfizer’s mid- and late-stage pipeline’. The current team at Sandwich has recently worked on anti-cancer candidates crizotinib and axitinib, as well as tofacitinib, a potential candidate against a range of immunological diseases. Pfizer says it is consulting with the workforce to determine a selection process for who to keep on and it is aiming to inform staff of the outcome of that process by 10 August. In the meantime, as part of the reshuffle, Annette Doherty will take over from Ruth McKernan as the Sandwich site director.

The company hopes that the retention of staff will attract fresh commercial interest in the site, which was recently put on the market with a new name: Discovery Park. But a long term presence is by no means assured. The company said it would ’review this operation within a few years, as part of its normal business planning’.

The move is a bit of good news for the UK pharma industry, which in recent years has witnessed a spate of site closures and job cuts. In March, Swiss pharma company Novartis said it had begun consultations on the future of its site in Horsham, UK, with the loss of 550 of the 950 jobs on the cards. The manufacturing and R&D site currently employs 950 people.

The ongoing cost cutting at Pfizer - mirrored at other big pharma companies - is driven by the threat to sales represented by the recent or imminent expiration of patents for key drugs and the lack of drug candidates in the product pipeline. Cholesterol drug Lipitor (atorvastatin), for example, will face generic competition near the end of this year, a huge blow considering that Lipitor pulled in a staggering $11 billion in sales in 2010.

David Phillips, RSC president said: ’I hope that when the company concludes its ’review’ of this situation in the years ahead, it will decide at the very least to keep this small team in Kent.’ But he warned that many of those currently at the site had already accepted new jobs abroad. ’The UK is in danger of losing huge chunks of its highly-skilled scientific workforce,’ he said.

Andrew Turley