French workers protest at Merck HQ

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Around 80 workers from Merck KGaA's French site at Lacassagne in
Lyon have taken part in a protest at the company's headquarters in
Darmstadt, Germany, against the planned closure of the unit.

Merck announced the closure of the Lacassagne site, which focused on preclinical R&D and production, last July. R&D at the site is due to be terminated this year, while production will cease in 2006. The company said it would stick to its decision, which is based on the results of two investigations to increase efficiency and to identify synergies between the company's various facilities.

Closing Lacassagne will affect around 320 employees, split 50:50 between R&D and production. Preclinical R&D will now be conducted at Merck's site in Chilly-Mazarin near Paris and Darmstadt, while the company has said it will continue to operate its manufacturing at Semoy in France.

The company said the move had been brought about because of disappointments in its R&D programme, which saw the firm rein in its diabetes research to concentrate on oncology. Merck had to discontinue development of three early-stage diabetes drugs last year, dropped an antidepressant partnered with GlaxoSmithKline and reported disappointing Phase III results with its Theratope cancer vaccine partnered with Canada's Biomira.

By the end of 2003, the company had shed 300 jobs in production and other central areas, with a cost reduction totalling €26 million.

The site closure is just one of a series of restructuring measures being undertaken by the German company. Earlier this month, it announced plans to sell off its laboratory distribution business VWR International and operate as a smaller, higher-margin business focused on pharmaceuticals, chemicals and liquid crystals. And in December it sold off its stake in the BioMer joint venture, focusing on orthopaedic devices.

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