Ben Hirschler London

US drug maker Pfizer fought back on Saturday against criticism that its planned takeover of rival AstraZeneca would damage Britain’s science base by saying strong UK research was a key reason for the deal.

Given its record of big job cuts after past acquisitions, the group has come under fire in Britain, the US and Sweden as it weighs its next move to buy AstraZeneca, which could be a sweetened offer this week.

Chief executive Ian Read, who will appear before two panels of British legislators tomorrow and Wednesday, said the $106 billion (R1.1 trillion) deal was a “win-win” for shareholders and society, and merging the research of the two firms would be “easy”.

The suggested deal would be the largest foreign takeover of a British company and has provoked a political storm in the UK, with the government seeking binding commitments to protect skilled jobs and scientific research. Two US state governors with large AstraZeneca workforces have joined the fray, while the prime minister of Sweden, where AstraZeneca has half its roots, has expressed concerns.

Read did not make any fresh pledges on British jobs in his latest comments on Pfizer’s website, but said tapping into AstraZeneca’s research and development capacity was an important reason behind the deal.

“When we looked at AstraZeneca, we liked their science. We liked where their science is being done, which is in the UK, and we know we have good science in Cambridge, Oxford, London and other universities.”

He dismissed suggestions from AstraZeneca’s chief executive, Pascal Soriot, that a merger would be disruptive and could damage the development of a series of experimental drugs in clinical testing.

“The integration of the two scientific bases will be easy,” he said, arguing that Pfizer’s system gave substantial autonomy to scientific leaders within specific disease areas.

Pfizer has given a five-year commitment to complete AstraZeneca’s new research centre in Cambridge, retain a factory in the north-western English town of Macclesfield and put a fifth of its research staff in Britain if the deal goes ahead.

The US firm said it could adjust its promises if circumstances changed “significantly”, prompting demands for more watertight pledges.

British Finance Minister George Osborne said he was ready for “hard negotiation” to ensure Pfizer stuck to specific promises on jobs and science.

Under British takeover rules, Pfizer has until May 26 to make a firm bid for AstraZeneca or walk away. Investors believe Pfizer is likely to return with an improved offer of more than £53 a share to get AstraZeneca to negotiate. – Reuters