SMITHFIELD, R.I. (WPRI) -- Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc. announced Tuesday morning it is closing its plant in Smithfield and moving manufacturing operations to other sites in the United States and Ireland.
A spokeswoman told Eyewitness News Alexion has 250 employees at the location, which the company said has been a key manufacturing site for Soliris - a high-priced treatment for two rare genetic disorders - over the past 10 years. However, the company said the Rhode Island facility is not "optimally suited to accommodate our future pipeline, including ALXN1210," new drug currently undergoing trials.
"We recognize that these changes are difficult for our employees in Rhode Island, however, they are necessary to support our future business," the company said in a statement. "We are committed to treating our impacted employees respectfully and providing them with transition assistance."
The announcement comes just 15 months after the company held a celebratory ground-breaking ceremony, joined by Gov. Gina Raimondo and other elected officials, for a $200 million expansion that was supposed to take place over five years.
The company is now changing course, cancelling the expansion and shutting down the plant in phases by mid-2018. Mandy Fahey, a spokesperson for Alexion, said the plant would be put up for sale at that time.
Fahey declined to provide anyone for an interview with Eyewitness News. A press release said the closure of the plant is part of a larger corporate restructuring that includes laying off 20% of the global workforce and moving the Connecticut headquarters to Boston.
"We're very disappointed," said Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor, a member of Raimondo's cabinet who worked with the company on the expansion plan. Pryor said the Raimondo administration did not give Alexion any money or incentives in the deal, although the state did swap a parcel of land with Alexion as part of the expansion.
He said Alexion's chief executive has changed since the state worked with them on the project last year.
"They've been through a major leadership transition, they've had three CEOs in the past handful of months," Pryor said. "So this is a company that's trying to correct some major, major problems."
One of those problems is a federal investigation into the company, which Fahey confirmed is ongoing. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General declined to comment on the investigation, which is reportedly being conducted out of that office.
"As a matter of standard law enforcement practice, the Office of Inspector General can neither confirm nor deny investigations that may - or may not - be pending before the agency," said Don White, a spokesperson for the office.
Pryor said he was notified by Alexion about the shutdown on Monday.
"Our focus needs to be on these workers at the Alexion plant in Smithfield, in ensuring that they have new opportunities," he said.
Commerce will also be involved in trying to find another business to take over the plant.
Scott Jensen, the director of the state's Department of Labor and Training, said DLT will be reaching out to the 250 employees through the company's human resources department to help them with the transition.
"I feel terribly about the situation they find themselves in," Jensen said. "I think first and foremost we'll want to make sure they get unemployment insurance, because they're due it." DLT will also be able to help the workers sign up for health insurance through HealthSource RI, deal with any housing needs through RI Housing, and find a new job in Rhode Island.
Jensen said the state has relationships with other biotech companies that Alexion employees may be qualified for, like Amgen, Pfizer and many smaller companies.
The spokesperson for Alexion was unable to say if Rhode Island workers would be offered jobs at the new Boston headquarters, responding that "no jobs will remain in Rhode Island."
In Connecticut, the company will keep 450 employees but will move the headquarters to Boston, where there will be 400 employees.
The Hartford Courant reports the state of Connecticut is asking the company to repay $26 million in loans and grants given by the state to Alexion in relation with its world headquarters.
Alexion has pledged to repay the money with interest and penalties, the newspaper reports.
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