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22nd Apr 2019

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Crowded race to win EU medicines agency

  • The European Medicines Agency has approved more than a thousand medicinal products since it was set up in 1995. (Photo: e-Magine Art)

The London-based European Medicine Agency (EMA) will need a new home after Brexit, and almost a dozen European cities are already vying over the regulatory gem.

Today, almost all new or innovative medicines are submitted to EMA for assessment, which evaluates whether they are safe to put on the EU market. The agency comes with almost 900 expert workers, paid for by the EU; comprehensive research networks; and a €300 million a year budget.

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Acting as a host for EMA is a boon for a country's life science sector, but also benefits the hospitality sector: some 400 people fly in to the agency each day.

Amsterdam, Athens, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Dublin, Lisbon, Milan and Stockholm have already declared willing to be the next host of the EMA, but more candidates are mulling their bids. Sources say that at least 20 member states are considering throwing their hat into the ring.

As many things related to Brexit, the race will be uncharted waters. There is no fixed procedure for how to elect the next headquarters; the new seat must only be chosen by unanimity in the Council, where EU member states are represented, which doesn't make the task easier.

"We are expecting the process to get mired in basic, competitive instincts," said one EU diplomat working on her country's EMA bid.

So far, cities are entering the contest as a beauty pageant, touting themselves as pro-European, cosmopolitan, with good food, and better weather than London. All also stress their vibrant pharmaceuticals industries.

Amsterdam puffs up its "outstanding international connections".

Italy, a founding member of the EU, argues it's not hosting any important European institution other than the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa).

Sweden, whose national medicine agency is one of EMA's closest partners, has put the diplomat Christer Asp in charge of a special secretariat at the ministry of social affairs, to better prepare its candidacy.

Denmark has already identified a plot of land on which the new agency could be built. Last week, it sent its newly appointed EMA envoy - Lars Rebien Sorensen, a former CEO of Novo Nordisk - to Brussels for meeting with EU officials and patient organisations by ways of rallying them behind Copenhagen's bid.

"It's very important that the process is clearly defined, and that it doesn't drag on as part of a bigger deal that wouldn't make justice to the importance of EMA," Sorensen told this website.

Guiding criteria

Some countries are therefore pushing the European Commission to prepare clear criteria that would guide the process and allow to elect a winner as soon as possible.

They fear that prolonged uncertainty about EMA's future location could drive its highly skilled staff to look for jobs elsewhere.

“It goes without saying that EMA needs clarity about its future as soon as possible,” said Bert Koenders, the Dutch foreign minister, when presenting Amsterdam's bid earlier this month. “Its work is too important to everyone in Europe to postpone the matter until after the Brexit negotiations.”

The scoreboard could include: strong links between EMA and the country's national medicine agency; a building for 900 people; available housing for EMA staff; high level of healthcare and schooling for expat children; hotels for visitors; and good travel connections.

"It would be helpful if Michel Barnier [the EU Brexit negotiator], presented these criteria as soon as possible," one EU diplomat said, suggesting it could happen at the first Council meeting after Britain has triggered article 50, officially launching its exit negotiations.

Brexit will meanwhile mean that pharmaceutical companies need to apply for a separate permit to market medicine in the UK, which could entail that pharmaceuticals are introduced to the UK market at a delay.

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