Drugmaker UCB backs Brexit Britain with 1 billion pound investment

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LONDON (Reuters) - Belgian drugmaker UCB UCB.BR expects to invest about 1 billion pounds in Britain over the next five years, throwing its support behind the country's life sciences sector despite Brexit uncertainty.

The move is a fillip for Prime Minister Theresa May, who is battling to win support for a Dec. 11 parliamentary vote on her agreement with Brussels on Britain leaving the European Union next March.

UCB said on Wednesday that its investment would include 150 million to 200 million pounds on a purpose-built research centre. The new site will also house an early manufacturing facility and a hub for commercial operations.

The Belgian group has had a major presence in Britain since buying Slough-based antibody drug developer Celltech in 2004. However, a looming lease expiry on its current site in the town west of London prompted it to review global options.

In the event, Chief Executive Jean-Christophe Tellier said Britain came out on top as the most suitable site, thanks to its strong science culture. The decision will support 650 jobs and means the UK will remain home to one of UCB’s two global discovery research centres, with the other being in Belgium.

A year ago the British government trumpeted similar investment commitments by MSD, known as Merck & Co MRK.N in the United States, and German-based diagnostics company Qiagen QIA.DE.

The highly regulated drugs sector is one of the most vulnerable to Britain’s decision to leave the EU because of uncertainty over how medicines oversight will function in the event of an abrupt exit.

But pharmaceutical companies are still attracted by the country’s world-class talent in biological science and its reputation as a significant centre of drug development.

Reporting by Ben Hirschler; Editing by David Goodman