LONDON (Reuters) - Pfizer Inc is to close its research and development centre in Sandwich, southern England, which employs 2,400 people, dealing a major blow to Britain's scientific jobs base.
The world's biggest drugmaker said on Tuesday it would exit the site over the next 18 to 24 months as part of a global programme to create a more focussed and sustainable R&D machine.
The closure is the latest in a wave of research cutbacks by large pharmaceuticals, which face a record number of patent expiries on big-selling medicines that will slash revenue.
The majority of those working at Sandwich will be made redundant, although "several hundred" may be transferred to other Pfizer sites or external partners, the U.S. company said.
"This is a shocking wake-up call," said Colin Blakemore, professor of neuroscience at the University of Oxford. "We must respond to this signal that one of our most important industries no longer has confidence in the future of British science."
Sandwich is Pfizer's biggest R&D facility in Europe and the largest R&D site of any foreign-owned drugmaker in Britain. It has been a base for drug discovery at the group since 1954.
Business minister, Vince Cable, said the move was "extremely disappointing" and the government would be meeting with Pfizer as a matter of urgency to discuss alternative ways of using the facilities and buildings.
Pfizer insisted the move was no reflection on the workforce or the operating environment in Britain but Linda McCulloch, national officer for the Unite trade union, said it would be "devastating" for the local economy.
Britain has traditionally punched above its weight in drug research, but has been hit in the past year by planned cuts at AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline.
Researchers at Pfizer's large Sandwich site, which resembles a university campus, have been responsible for discovering some of Pfizer's most successful products, including impotence pill Viagra, heart drug Norvasc and HIV/AIDS medicine Celsentri.
Pfizer announced the closure alongside full-year results, which saw it cut its sales forecast for 2012, the first full year in which its $10 billion (6 billion pounds)-a-year cholesterol fighter Lipitor will face cheaper U.S. generics.
(Editing by Kate Kelland and David Hulmes)