After unexpected tie, Amsterdam wins ‘coin toss’ for new EMA HQ

Well, that was unexpected. The EU’s third and final vote on the new location of the European Medicine Agency tied between Milan and Amsterdam, with Amsterdam winning the proverbial coin toss tie-breaker (EU officials drew the city’s name out of a bowl).

The results may surprise those following the first two voting rounds closely, as Milan came in the lead on the previous sessions. Both cities ranked extraordinarily well on the EMA’s scorecard, with the locations especially popular with the agency’s 900-person staff. The EMA said earlier this month that 65% or more of its staff would be willing to relocate to both Milan and Amsterdam. According to a staff survey in September, Amsterdam would woo the most EMA staffers to relocate, while Milan ranked fourth.

Staffers likely breathed a sigh of relief that other top-ranked cities like Bratislava and Bucharest did not end up in the top three. Less than 30% of staffers were willing to move to those cities, which would have put the EMA in a tough position — understaffed and only able to work on top priority efforts.

The EMA has called London home since 1995, when it was first established. From there, it monitors and approves drugs across 28 European Union member states and 500 million people. Following the United Kingdom’s vote to exit the EU in 2019, the EMA has been scrambling to choose a site that will meet all of its (many) needs. The relocation caused a frenzy of bids from major cities throughout Europe, first totaling 19 prospective cities but with three dropping out early this morning: Malta, Zagreb, and Dublin.

The EU’s top criteria for the EMA’s new home city is accessibility to international travel and bilingual education for the staffer’s children. The EMA’s staff has been a major concern, as an exodus of employees would mean a slow down of processes. The EMA warned last month that, worst-case scenario, its relocation from London could permanently damage the medicines regulatory system, triggering a public health crisis.

If it can’t compensate for large staff losses following its relocation, it would be forced to invoke its Brexit preparedness business continuity plan. The plan has the EMA decreasing its activities to only include those with high priority. Activities such as corporate governance, audits and conferences are listed as the lowest priorities. The top priorities include the assessment and safety monitoring of medicines and activities vital for maintaining the infrastructure of the European medicines regulatory network.

To continue carrying out its highly prioritized activities, the EMA says it needs 462 full time equivalent (FTE) staff — close to 50% of its current staff. It needs another 140 to carry out medium priority work and a further 110 to continue to perform its lowest priority activities.

Amsterdam has a number of things going for it, according to the EMA’s scorecard. It has good flight connectivity to other European Economic Area capital cities and international locations. It has excellent public transport between the airport and the proposed premises of the EMA. It also has lots of housing and “high quality accommodation” within walking distance to the proposed HQ site. And there’s lots of European-oriented schools.

Milan had many of the same things going for it, except the city also included details on current and future school capacity for the staffer’s children, which may have eased worry about putting hundreds of new students into local schools.

Now, the EMA has plenty on its plate. The agency has to take up new operations at the Amsterdam site by March 2019. Fitting out the new headquarters alone will take 12-15 months, the agency estimates. Building one in time will require fast action and a hurry-up construction schedule.


Here’s Steve Bates, CEO of the UK’s BioIndustry Association:

“London’s loss is Amsterdam’s gain. Today’s decision on the location of the European Medicines Agency means a 1000 high quality jobs leaving the UK, disrupting a thousand families as a direct result of Brexit, with implications for thousands more. Businesses now need certainty. The best way to do this is by an early agreement to a transition timeframe and continued close regulatory co-operation. We must now ensure Brexit does not disrupt the safe supply of vital medicines to tens of millions of families in the EU 27 and the UK.”

Martine Dehlinger-Kremer, VP of Global Medical and Regulatory Affairs at international CRO SynteractHCR, says Amsterdam has all the criteria to be a successful move:

Amsterdam is a very dynamic city and an internationally oriented city. The Netherlands offers all the facilities necessary for the agency to relocate quickly and efficiently. Amsterdam will be able to provide good housing, international schools and healthcare for the EMA employees as well as access to the labour market for their partners. Amsterdam is well recognised medical and science industry. Amsterdam has even been nominated as the European Capital of Innovation by the European Union. Amsterdam offers one of Europe’s biggest airports which will allow easy and fast access to the EMA visitors.”

And Pierluigi Paracchi, CEO of Italy’s Genenta:

Image: Amsterdam Shutterstock

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