Avatar photo

Freelance journalist

Author Bio ▼

Ron Alalouff is a journalist specialising in the fire and security markets, and a former editor of websites and magazines in the same fields.
January 31, 2023

Sign up to free email newsletters


The Video Surveillance Report 2022

Fire at £1bn pharmaceutical AstraZeneca global R&D facility leaves many questions unanswered

A fire at the AstraZeneca R&D facility in Cambridge which triggered a 16-engine fire service response but which the building owner described as “small” poses questions about the accuracy and availability of information and records of fire incidents, says Ron Alalouff.


AstraZeneca Discovery Centre (Image credit: AstraZeneca)

16 fire engines from four counties attended a fire in December at the £1bn, 19,000m2 AstraZeneca Discovery Centre, the company’s global research and development facility and corporate HQ opened by Prince Charles in late 2021 and located on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus.

Now, you would think with this scale of response that this was a major incident, but AstraZeneca has played down the impact of the fire, referring to it as “a small fire that was contained”. Despite numerous requests for more information and clarification, the company stuck to its terse statement which said:

We can confirm the Cambridge fire brigade were called to an incident at the Discovery Centre on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus on Friday 23 December around 20:00. There was a small fire that was contained and the damage has been assessed. There were no reported injuries.”

No comment

AstraZeneca declined to answer specific questions I put to them, including those about the sections of the building and floor areas that were affected by the fire, the cause of the fire, whether there was a sprinkler system fitted, and how the fire affected operations in the building.

To add to the confusion, Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service said that it had responded to a fire in a “building under construction”, while AstraZeneca was adamant that it broke out in the new Discovery Centre. This discrepancy could be explained by the company’s suggestion that the affected part of the building was being fitted out, possibly as laboratories.

Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service said it was called at 19.25, the fire was mainly confined to the floorspace under the first floor, and that smoke had spread across parts of the first floor. The fire service could not confirm whether a sprinkler system had been installed, but said that the fire alarm systems had not yet been commissioned.

Addressing the size of the response to incident, a spokesperson for the fire service told me:

“In the early stages it was unclear how large the fire was and how much it had spread, so our response was based on the risk that presented the initial crews that attended. The smoke had spread across the first floor, so we needed to ensure there were enough firefighters to search the building wearing breathing apparatus to locate, stop the spread and extinguish the fire.”


The fire service said that crews arrived to find the first floor filled with smoke. “Firefighters worked to locate the source of the fire, and used hose reels and jets to extinguish the fire, before ventilating the building. Firefighters checked for hotspots and further spread, before the incident began scaling down at around 12.40am.”

It also confirmed that the most likely cause of the fire was accidental, that there were no aspects of the building’s structure or fabric that caused concerns about potential fire spread, and that the building was unoccupied, “as it was still under construction”. Confusion again – are they suggesting that a building designed for 2,500 research staff was empty, albeit at 19.30 on a Friday evening?

The Discovery Centre comprises a huge triangular glass disc with rounded edges in a single loop, and is defined by a saw-tooth roof. It contains high-tech labs with glass walls to enhance visibility, as well as open spaces and pathways to encourage collaboration within the building and the campus. It bristles with environmental engineering features, such as 174 boreholes to provide natural geothermal energy, four hybrid cooling towers, and a ground source heat pump that is said to save enough energy to power 2,500 homes.

The building was designed by architect Herzog & de Meuron and the fire protection consultants was Arup.


Secure your ticket for FIREX 2023!

16-18 May 2023, ExCeL London | Bringing competency in fire safety to the forefront

Connect with the fire safety community at FIREX 2023. You'll find hundreds of leading exhibitors from the active and passive fire sector, showcasing all the latest in fire protection, prevention and detection solutions. With third-party product approvals a condition of exhibiting, visitors can be assured of the quality of solutions they're seeing, and the all-new distributor network is also launching this year.

Network with thousands of peers and likeminded professionals, while attending dedicated conference sessions covering updates in legislation, technology and building safety from leading figures in the industry.


Related Topics

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments