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AstraZeneca backer slams Pfizer for ‘aggression’

Exclusive: Job fears grow as US bidder’s pledge fails to include Merseyside flu’ centre

The boss of AstraZeneca’s longest-standing corporate investor last night rounded on Pfizer for its “aggressive” behaviour towards the British drugs giant and declared it should be left to grow independently.

Borje Ekholm, the chief executive of top-five shareholder Investor AB, was speaking for the first time about why AstraZeneca was right to reject Pfizer’s £63bn takeover offer.

His harsh words for the US company came as its chief executive, Ian Read, was preparing for the grilling he and AstraZeneca’s boss, Pascal Soriot, will be facing over the next two days by Select Committee MPs.

Investor AB manages the wealth of the Swedish billionaire Wallenberg family and is the fifth biggest shareholder in AstraZeneca, owning 4 per cent of the company.

Mr Ekholm said: “Pfizer have been rather aggressive in their approach. They have put out statements in public and not tried enough to initiate discussions with [AstraZeneca’s] board.”

He praised AstraZeneca for having invested heavily recently in research and development to create new medicines that would bear fruit in the long term. But he said Pfizer “seems less dependent on R&D and more on aggressive cost-cutting. It seems keen on getting cost controls in place rather than bringing new drugs to the market”.

This was crucial for AstraZeneca shareholders, he said, because of the large proportion of the takeover Pfizer proposes to pay in shares in the combined group. “The key here is looking at what offers the best long-term value for us.”

Mr Ekholm also appeared critical of the prominence Pfizer had given to the benefits of moving its tax domicile to the UK. “If tax is the only reason [for a deal] it is often not the best reason,” he said.

His views will be heeded here and in Sweden, where the Wallenbergs are immensely powerful. Marcus Wallenberg sits on AstraZeneca’s board of directors. They first invested in AstraZeneca in the 1920s.

Pfizer yesterday launched a staunch riposte to criticism of its pledges to retain the British science base of AstraZeneca. Labour has declared the pledges “not worth the paper they’re written on”, but Pfizer claimed they were legally binding unless circumstances changed significantly.

The company has promised to retain for five years AstraZeneca’s research centre in Cambridge and keep a factory in Macclesfield, Cheshire. It has said the UK will have a fifth of the group’s research force.

However, sources inside AstraZeneca told The Independent they were concerned Pfizer had not offered to safeguard the future of its vaccine plant in Speke, Merseyside, which employs 400. The site helps make the nasal spray flu’ vaccine for the Government’s programme to immunise millions of British children. AstraZeneca has invested heavily in it since 2010 to expand its capacity.