Made in Britain Part Two: Pharmaceuticals

Why drugs giant GlaxoSmithKline is still breathing easily

Lucy Tobin reports from the £4bn-a-year production line in Hertfordshire that is bucking the trend for making drugs in the Far East

There's nothing very sexy about the large complex of buildings just off the high street in Ware, Hertfordshire. Green buzzers to open doors and a large "daily performance target" poster in the entrance hall give the appearance of a newly built school. The extreme security – locked doors, a photo ID to gain entry, and a decree to strip off all watches and jewellery before passing the threshold – is reminiscent of some kind of open prison. There are no whizzy bits of gadgetry, as the aeronautics giants dot about their sites, nor portraits of glamorous models showing off their wares, as you might see at a retailer's head office.

But these buildings are important. Without them, millions of asthma sufferers might struggle to breathe – and the UK's economy would be short of breath too. The Ware complex is one of the largest UK manufacturing sites for Britain's biggest pharmaceuticals company, GlaxoSmithKline. Across its 16 acres, 730 staff churn out billions of pounds worth of respiratory treatments each year: this is the birthplace of the drug Seretide (known in the US as Advair), GSK's top-selling medicine. Last year, Ware produced £4bn-worth of Seretide inhalers. About 95 per cent of them were exported to the likes of China, South Korea and the US.

The doomsayers who argue that Britain "just doesn't make stuff any more" should take a trip to Ware. This site has been turning out drugs since 1896, when the veteran pharma firm Allen & Hanbury (which Glaxo bought in the 1950s) first developed the land.

Today, however, it plays host to a very modern manufacturing story. Given the scale of its production – Ware produces 220,000 inhalers a day – the heavy doors leading to its assembly plant might be expected to reveal a cacophony of people. Instead, in a room the size of a football pitch there's no human noise, just silver tubes and mini conveyor belts on dozens of busy lorry-sized machines. Across four assembly lines, only six men (and they are all men: some parts of manufacturing are apparently unchanged) are at work.

Staff numbers here have been slashed by 50 per cent in the past two years, with more than 750 factory workers axed as part of what the company – and the corporate world more generally – euphemistically calls "efficiencies".

Depressing, yes, but culling staff numbers is one reason that GSK can still afford to make things in Britain. Big Pharma's UK manufacturing isn't entirely healthy. Last year Pfizer closed its only research and development facility in the UK, a factory in Sandwich, Kent which developed the impotence drug Viagra. Other drug makers are also shifting their focus from tired Western economies to fast-growing emerging markets: Glaxo's domestic rival AstraZeneca last year announced that it had chosen China to home the most expensive factory it had ever developed, spending $200m (£128m) on a huge plant in Jiangsu province. At the same time, Astra last year closed down its research facility in Loughborough which employed almost 1,200 Britons.

But GSK is staying put. Indeed, in March it confirmed plans to invest £350m in its first new British manufacturing site – in Cumbria – in almost four decades.

"To move a plant would be an enormous investment decision when we can comfortably satisfy demand – not just for the UK but for the whole world – from Ware," says Jo Barrett, GSK's respiratory product stream director at Ware. "It would involve massive technology costs plus huge training, whilst here we have easy access to Europe and good logistics to overseas markets." She adds that having an R&D site just across the road in another part of GSK's complex has benefits too, including on-site scientists helping set up manufacturing lines. They created Relovair, the new respiratory medicine which GSK hopes will be another blockbuster and which is set to go to the regulators later this year, and are now liaising with the factory about gearing up for production.

Ms Barrett adds: "In pharma, it's not just about finding the cheapest method of production. Regulation is strict and plants in some local markets would not meet the requirements. In the past few months we've had the FDA [the US regulator], Saudi Arabian and Turkish regulators checking out our factory, plus the UK regulators are often on site. Overseas production may not be able to meet the standards that we can here."

The second reason helping GSK to continue making asthma drugs in Britain is a lack of immediate competition concerns. Tablets and capsules are easily replicable once their patents run out. Seretide's patent has already expired in several countries, but the complexities of making both the powder and the "diskus" inhaler device have so far deterred generic manufacturers from taking a slice out of the drug's £5bn-a-year sales. The same is true of oncology medicines: they sell in small volumes and there would be little cost savings in moving overseas.

Last year, the sector's exports hit £22.5bn, up £300m from 2010 and helping pharmaceuticals maintain their position as having the largest trade balance of any UK industry at £6.1bn in 2011. The Government is certainly aware of that: the Budget confirmed the introduction of a "patent box" with a lower rate of corporation tax on profits generated from UK-owned intellectual property. Glaxo – whose chief executive, Sir Andrew Witty, has been a member of David Cameron's business advisory group since 2010 – said that was a major factor in its decision to build and maintain its UK manufacturing.

But Big Pharma knows just how critical it is to the UK economy – and will become increasingly vocal about that fact in the coming months. That's because this autumn, the drugs industry will enter its next round of pricing negotiations with the Government. Under the Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme, medicine rates are renegotiated every five years, with a limit on profits that companies can earn from supplying drugs to the NHS. Earlier this month, Stephen Whitehead, the chief executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, said Britain must "recognise and reward the investment that goes into creating innovative new medicines". Otherwise, "our manufacturers will go abroad", he warned. "Our industry, our economy, and our healthcare system will suffer."

Global recipe, local production

A package of Seretide requires chemical compounds brought in from Scotland and Singapore, lactose (which carries the drug particles to the patient's lungs) from the Netherlands and New Zealand, plastic inhaler parts made in Kings Lynn, and foil strips from Germany.

These are bought together across three vast rooms, entirely by machine. The first production line sees medicine particles mixed together before mechanised pincers drop them into wells in the foil strips.

In the assembly room, a single worker supervises as another immense machine creates reels of foil doses, broken up into the exact number of doses per inhaler. A roller then winds each of these into a spiral, which a mechanical hand inserts into one half of the "diskus" device. The other half is then stamped and sealed on top.

Lasers etch on details of the dosage strength and batch number, and testing machines automatically swipe any mistakes into a bin.

The fastest of GSK's machines produces 7,500 inhalers an hour. A lone man, labouring under a huge US-style sign bearing the slogan "welcome to the home of the world's best respiratory device" then prepares products for the packing room.

Here machines foil-wrap inhalers for warmer climes such as the Middle East, and they are boxed ready for the pharmacy shelf. Cartons are packed on to pallets, ready to be moved around the UK, sent (by road) to Antwerp and on to the rest of Europe, or shipped to the US and further afield.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Powdered colors are displayed for sale at a market ahead of the Holi festival in Bhopal, India
techHere's what you need to know about the riotous occasion
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Evening Administrator

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This Pension Specialist was established early...

Guru Careers: Executive Assistant / PA

£30 - 35k + Bonus & Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Executive Assist...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Application Support Analyst

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Reach Volunteering: External Finance Trustee Needed!

Voluntary post, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Would you ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable