Pfizer shifts research to China: Is anyone to blame?

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Pfizer is the world’s largest pharmaceutical company. So its actions must be taken as important on their own terms and as a barometer for larger trends within the pharmaceutical industry. This is likely the relevant context for judging its decision announced last week to shutter U.S. and British labs and move its antibiotic research program to new facilities in Shanghai. About twenty-five percent of Pfizer’s scientists will be let go in the process.

These moves have been widely interpreted as cost-cutting moves in response to the company’s forthcoming loss of patent protection — and profits — from its best-selling statin drug, Lipitor. ACSH’s Dr. Josh Bloom says that with this change, there will be a significant loss of skill and knowledge. “Doing research aimed at developing new antibiotics isn’t like making a toaster,” he says. “It’s art and science. There’s a lot involved just in getting the bugs to grow, let alone in finding new drugs to stop them. This will stall their antibiotic program, probably for years.”

ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan observes though that it’s important not to blame Pfizer for the decision. “Why are we being angry at those who are the victims of too much regulation and litigation?” she asks.

ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross agrees. “The current dismantling of American pharma repeats the insidious pattern we saw in Europe in the 1980s and 90s,” he says. “Pharmaceutical research was an enormous business, but it was driven by EU over-regulation to the U.S., where it’s now a huge source of jobs. And due to the rise in our own regulatory burden and windfall-oriented plaintiffs bar, research is rapidly moving to Asia. But it won’t just be jobs we’ll be losing. Life-saving drugs will take longer to create.”