Several years ago, Big Pharma started a huge restructuring wave in preparation for what's called "patent cliffs" -- when companies stand to lose patent protection on blockbuster drugs. Because their pipelines of upcoming new drugs were slack, the restructurings included massive layoffs. Then another slew of job cuts hit pharmaceuticals as the global recession set in. But even now, the bloodletting doesn't seem to be over.The Financial Times reports that GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) will announce this week -- when it reports quarterly earnings -- more than 3,000 job cuts. The moves are supposedly aimed at helping the company diversify away from its core pharmaceutical business and into higher-growth areas, such as consumer health. The Sunday Times reports that GSK will chop up to 4,000 jobs as it increasingly focuses on emerging markets. That means most of the cuts will be in America and Europe, where unemployment is already a huge problem.

This follows an announcement last week from AstraZeneca (AZN) it would eliminate another 10,400 jobs by 2014 (8,000 of which are new cuts), or about 16% of its workforce, as part of a $2 billion, five-year restructuring. AstraZeneca already sliced 12,600 jobs between 2007 and 2009.

A Continuing Pattern


The layoffs at both companies include thousands of research and development positions, which may be surprising in light of their need for new drugs. Still, most analysts think GSK's pipeline is healthier than that of Astra and other rivals, with more than 30 products in the advanced stages of testing. GSK has already had several key patents expire in the past two years, with more coming in the next few. Astra will face generic competition for two of its blockbuster drugs this year, and is also set for more in coming years.

The situation at these two companies isn't much different than what the pharmaceutical world has been going through already. Following are some highlights of the huge layoffs in 2009:
Many of these companies cut sales reps, marketing and R&D staff in the U.S. and Europe where they don't expect strong, if any, growth. But they've added positions in emerging markets, where they believe growth opportunities await. Even the recent GSK news will likely be offset by fresh recruitment in emerging markets and in its nonpharmaceutical operations. Already it has added 1,500 staffers in China. And it's not alone.

When Lilly announced its cuts, the WSJ Health Blog noticed the overall headcount increased, meaning it added jobs in emerging markets. Pfizer says it's looking to increase its sales force in China to 3,200 by the end of next year, up from about 2,300 now. Novartis (NVS), too, will boost the number of employees at its R&D center in Shanghai, from 160 now to 1,000 over five years.

So, the downsizing of Big Pharma workforces in Western economies may be offset somewhat by expansion in emerging markets. That may be consolation for investors, but not to those losing their jobs.

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