One of the many issues that needs to be negotiated in the wake of British prime minister Theresa May’s triggering of Article 50 is the location of the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

The EMA — responsible for evaluating and monitoring medicines developed for sale in the EU — is currently headquartered London, but it’s likely that EU member states will insist that the agency is relocated to a country within the union.

Bad for business

Proximity to the EMA has attracted many pharmaceutical companies to the UK, and created a world-leading network of researchers.

The agency employs about 900 people, only 50 of which are British, so the immediate job loss might not concern the British government, but in the long term the relocation could have a detrimental effect on both the country’s economy, and the health of British and European citizens.

In 2016, 40,000 researchers visited the EMA’s headquarters in Canary Wharf, and it has been reported that the EMA regularly books 350 hotel rooms a night in the capital.

However, any effect that the relocation will have on the local economy will be dwarfed by the effect on the UK as a whole.

Drug development requires continuous investment, and it is thought that without the EMA the UK may no longer be able to attract pharmaceutical companies.

Delays and uncertainty

Any relocation will inevitably delay the approval of new drugs, which could cost people their lives and subject others to unnecessary suffering.

Relocating a European agency is not as easy as moving a couple of hundred computers between offices.

The new host city will not only need to have the infrastructure in place to regularly accommodate large conferences.

It will also have to be able to convince the nearly 900 highly skilled staff to relocate to a new country, which means providing a good quality of life for them and their families.

Over 20 EU countries have applied to host the EMA, with Ireland, Spain and the Netherlands the front runners, but any decision about the agency’s future will have to be decided by a council of representatives from across the EU, which could cause further delays and uncertainty within the pharmaceutical industry.