No reprieve for biopharma layoffs in Q1: Fierce Biotech analysis

The biotech industry has been holding its breath, hoping that 2024 would bring some reprieve from 2023’s brutal bear market. But market recovery is a slow process, and the number of layoffs reported this quarter reflects that sentiment, with 57 layoff rounds reported for the first three months—the exact number reported during the same period last year.   

Both these totals are nearly double 2022’s first quarter total of 30 layoff rounds reported. 

While it's hard to fully understand the human impact of the layoffs, at least 2,398 people lost their jobs from the 25 companies reporting numbers of employees affected this quarter, according to data from the Fierce Biotech Layoff Tracker. The remaining companies either reported layoffs as a percentage of the total workforce or didn’t share how many staff members would be laid off.

Of the 31 times that companies did provide a percentage of staff eliminated, 34% was the mean reduction size.  

Breaking up the reported layoffs by month, January saw the highest number of workforce reductions, totaling 24 different rounds compared to 16 in February and 17 in March.   

Many of the biotechs laying off staff cited the current market environment, with Sumitomo Pharma dubbing the conditions a “severe business environment.” Other cuts follow clinical trial flops, such as Synlogic’s 90% workforce cull and planned closure after a pivotal phase 3 study of its lead phenylketonuria drug was found to be unlikely to succeed on the primary endpoint.  

A few other biotechs had to close shop entirely. In late February, Swiss company ObsEva said all employees would be laid off as operations were wound down. Things had been grim for the biotech since July 2022, when its stock plummeted after the FDA said its highly touted uterine fibroid candidate linzagolix wasn’t fit for an on-time approval.

Meanwhile, China-based LianBio set out plans for a prolonged dissolution expected closer to 2027, with half of the biotech’s staff to lose their jobs by the end of March. 

While Big Pharmas regularly undergo turnover, this quarter’s layoff list has a particularly large presence from these larger companies. Names like Bayer, Bristol Myers Squibb, GSK, Takeda, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, Roche and Pfizer all appear on 2024’s tracker—often more than once.

Companies like Pfizer, Moderna and J&J have been forced to pivot after previously investing heavily in COVID-19, for which demand has greatly declined over the past year. Pfizer’s global cost-cutting campaign has left hundreds of unemployed people in its wake, while J&J shuttered a nearly 200,000-square-foot R&D outpost in California less than 18 months after it opened.

Other Big Pharmas have stoked the fires of the M&A market, snapping up biotechs and their pipelines, but often discarding the majority of the company’s team.      

This phenomenon can be seen as recently as March 26, when Bristol Myers Squibb announced that 252 Mirati workers would be heading out two months after closing a multibillion-dollar acquisition of the oncology biotech.

Just days before, on March 22, GSK confirmed that an undisclosed number of Bellus Health employees would lose their jobs after the pharma paid $2 billion to buy the Canadian company last summer.

This extends beyond just Big Pharma acquisitions, too. Last week, clinical-stage Avalo Therapeutics agreed to pay $22 million to acquire AlmataBio and the biotech's anti-IL-1β monoclonal antibody AVTX-009. None of Almata's workers will be retained under the new owner.  

Meanwhile, biotechs like Aurinia Pharmaceuticals have searched for a buyer, but, after failing to secure one, reach the same conclusion—layoffs are required to survive.  

The data presented here is likely a gross underestimate of the actual layoffs occurring across the industry. We’ve received several layoff tips that haven’t yet been corroborated while numerous reductions in force at private companies are able to fly under the radar. As always, if you know of a layoff occurring at a biotech, please reach out to the Fierce Biotech editorial team and let us know.