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Merck & Co., Qiagen to hire scientists as post-Brexit strategy unveiled

Merck & Co. Inc. has announced plans to employ nearly 1,000 people in a new research center, bolstering the U.K. government's life sciences strategy for post-Brexit Britain a week after the European Medicines Agency announced its move to Amsterdam once the country leaves the European Union in 2019.

The Kenilworth, New Jersey-based group said it is currently evaluating various locations in the London area, and aims to attract 150 of the "brightest" research scientists, and relocate 800 existing jobs, to the U.K. Discovery Center, which is set to open by 2020. At the same time, Germany-based Qiagen NV announced plans to create a potential 800 jobs in a genomics and diagnostics campus based in Manchester.

The announcements came as the U.K. government publishes the first of its four industrial strategies intended to reassure the business community and demonstrate how the U.K. will continue to function after leaving the EU, even as crucial trade and other negotiations remain unresolved.

"We are an open, flexible economy, built on trade and engagement with the world," Business Secretary Greg Clark said in the government's announcement. "We are renowned for innovation and discovery, with some of the best universities and research institutions in the world producing some of the most inventive people on earth."

Still, he acknowledged the need for an improvement in productivity — which John Bell, chair of the Life Science Industrial Strategy advisory board, said will be addressed by innovation resulting from the collaboration between government, industry, academia, charities and the National Health Service.

International pharmaceutical companies headquartered in the U.K. have been calling for clarity from the government with regard to its Brexit strategy. GlaxoSmithKline plc CEO Emma Walmsley said she was looking for "as much transparency and visibility as soon as possible" with regard to the timing of any transition, when speaking to reporters recently. Although costs associated with Brexit were not material, she said they were nevertheless "real" and associated with the construction of new manufacturing facilities across Europe, as well as potential preparations for license changes.

"A new, long-term industrial strategy for the country is important and welcome," said Phil Thompson, GlaxoSmithKline's president of global affairs, in an emailed response to the strategy. "We need to take an integrated approach across government, the public and private sectors, to develop the country's industries and improve our economic prospects, particularly post-Brexit."

The U.K. life sciences sector employs 233,000 people and has a turnover of more than £64 billion. The Financial Times suggests that Merck's investment could amount to about £1 billion although company spokeswoman Meral Nugent would not confirm this. "There is no number for the investment," she told S&P Global Market Intelligence, adding that it will be "significant" and follows similar investments in biomedical centers in the San Francisco Bay area and Cambridge, Mass.

"A new U.K. location will enable us to build on our proud legacy of invention and be an important contributor to the vibrant and rapidly growing U.K. life sciences community, while providing access for more collaborations within the European life science ecosystem," said Roger Perlmutter, president of Merck's research laboratories, in a statement. Merck employs some 12,000 people across its global research network, which is spread across California, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.