Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

London — About a third of employees at the EU’s drug regulator are expected to quit as it leaves Britain because of Brexit, prompting the agency to temporarily scale back operations to focus on essential public-health activities.

Staff who aren’t relocating to Amsterdam with the European Medicines Agency (EMA) have already started to leave, a trend that’s set to accelerate, the regulator said in a statement on Wednesday. The agency expects to lose almost a third of its staff, more than it anticipated, with 135 short-term contractors no longer able to work due to labour laws in the Netherlands.

The staff losses due to Brexit are disrupting work at the agency, which is the EU’s equivalent of the US Food and Drug Administration and oversees medication safety for about 500-million people. With a workforce of about 900, the EMA is making a major move at a time when it’s beginning to evaluate more complex products, such as therapies to correct gene defects.

Along with the staff loss of about 30%, the EMA warned of a "a high degree of uncertainty regarding mid-term staff retention". The agency’s announcement confirms warnings that executive director Guido Rasi gave in a June interview with Bloomberg News, when he said that a host of issues, including the effect of local employment regulations on contracts, could boost personnel losses beyond 19%, the level it estimated last year.

The agency projected in 2017 that losing less than 35% of its workers would allow on-time approval of new medicines and safety monitoring to be largely maintained. When the EU picked the Dutch capital over 18 other contenders as the regulator’s new home last year, it was the EMA staff’s top choice and the option viewed as least likely to hinder its work.

The regulator said it will start the next phase of its continuity plan by the beginning of October to protect its main activities evaluating medicines. The work that staff losses will affect initially includes international collaboration, revision of guidelines, and clinical data publication.