EMA Highlights: Spain and Italy pushing to host EU drug watchdog

by Gary Finnegan: Within hours of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, at least half a dozen countries began to call for the European Medicines Agency (EMA) to be moved from London. With a total budget of €324 million and a steady stream of experts travelling back and forth for meetings, housing the agency is a big prize.

Now, as the dust settles, Spain and Italy are seen to be pushing hardest but others are still in the mix. One thing is for sure, moving the EMA will be complex but is now inevitable.

The medicines regulator signed a 25-year lease on new premises in Canary Wharf early this year, banking on a ‘remain’ vote in the June referendum. The Careers section of its website continues to advertise vacancies “at its London headquarters” but applicants must know the future is uncertain. But where might they end up?

First out of the blocks in June was Sweden where the national pharma association was quick to point to its innovative industry and top-ranking research institutes. Denmark swiftly joined them with a similar claim.

Ireland’s Minister for Health, Simon Harris, waited a few weeks before openly setting out the case for shifting the Agency to Dublin. Ireland is home to a large number of pharma and medtech multinationals and has good links to the EMA. Linguistic and geographical proximity are also part of the pitch.

Others have argued that the EU should take the opportunity to shift a major agency to the east. Several central and eastern Member States house no EU agency – a fact that rankles as larger Western neighbours continue to bag the most influential and lucrative bodies.

However, in the months that have passed since the UK referendum, the big beasts have come to the fore. The battle for the EMA has been wrapped up with a tug-of-war over another major EU body – the new European Banking Authority.

The trump card for governments bidding to house one of the two is transport links. On top of its 900 or so staff, the EMA has 210 experts that currently visit London each month. In addition, around 3,600 experts visit the agency every year.

Paris and Amsterdam have been mentioned repeatedly as both are international hubs, easily accessible through direct flights from any corner of Europe. Frankfurt may also have a case but already hosts the European Central Bank.

The strongest push at political level is now coming from Italy and Spain. Rome and Madrid would have the required infrastructure, while Barcelona may also be an option. The fact that the Agency is led by Dr Guido Rasi, a former Italian regulator, could help the case for Rome – although the EMA chief says he has no preference.

The winner may also be well placed to claim the pharmaceuticals division of the Unitary Patent Court which has also signed a lease on London premises. Germany is already home to the European Patent Office – and files a large proportion of patents and drug applications – so could be a dark horse in the race.

No decision will be taken until the UK formally triggers Article 50 of the EU Treaty which sets a two-year time limit to negotiate its exit from the Union. In the meantime, the jostling continues behind the scenes while EMA staff and clients wait patiently.