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The future of life sciences in the UK

Both Brexit and coronavirus have given rise to challenges—but also opportunities

By Sally Shorthose  

© Image by x3 / Pixabay

This article was produced in association with Bird&Bird

In many ways, the sector seems to be buoyant, which indicates confidence – we have seen booming private equity/venture capital raising – the total sector figure for money raised had increased from around £2 billion in 2018 to £2.8 billion in 2020. To put that in perspective, in 2018 the UK total was the same as Germany, France, Belgium and Holland combined. In 2020 Germany raised €1 billion, France €600 million and Switzerland a similar amount. 

There are some areas where the UK has shown itself to be particularly competitive; for example, in relation to genomics, diagnostics, use of technologies, and the seizing of opportunity in Covid-19 related sectors which has been swift and purposeful. Kate Bingham’s lead in the vaccine rollout has been spectacular; this was brought about by her team making some brave choices in terms of ordering vaccines early and in bulk. This bold approach meant that the UK was ahead of the game (together of course with the pragmatic approach of the MHRA towards the authorisation or approvals of the new vaccines). Another opportunity seized was the mix of public investment – the government funding the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to the tune of £85-90 million – and private equity/venture capital expertise was great success. The UK has learnt very quickly to build and develop companies online – including wet lab operations – which is no easy task, but this flexibility and agility may well be used to great effect in the public health sector going forward. By contrast, the EU roll out seemed to be bureaucratic, eurocratic and over-regulated. The securing of product, procurement and advance ordering that was put in place has seen the UK achieve close to herd immunity (some would say).

“Another area where the UK is a market leader is in the integration of technology, not least in connection with biotechnology”

There are new opportunities for the UK to become a world leader once again in clinical trials; its market share has now declined to close to 5% largely because of the stringent EU regulation that has had to be followed. That market may, however, yet be clawed back if the turnaround in vaccine production is anything to go by in demonstrating the UK’s agility to adapt to the circumstances; it went from manufacturing zero to 80 million AstraZeneca doses in a year, with components for Pfizer/BioNTech made here as well as the Sanofi vaccine. 

Another area where the UK is a market leader is in the integration of technology (including but not exclusively artificial intelligence), not least in connection with biotechnology. We have seen strong growth in London such as in the huge tech areas growing in Shoreditch and around the Kings Cross basin, as well as its world leading hospitals, while Cambridge, Oxford and other big university towns continue to attract the best brains and to create high tech jobs, many of which are life science based. 

The MHRA has had challenges in having to up its staff to deal with independence post-Brexit, while losing the outlet and support of the EMA. It is unlikely (but not impossible) that MHRA will diverge significantly from the general EMA approach. But discussion of 140-day deadlines for UKCA approval for medical devices means that the UK could become an attractive testing ground for new products – while the ostensibly more valuable CE mark, granting a right of sale throughout the EEA, is pursued via EEA competent authorities more slowly and at greater expense. While the hope of mutual recognition has all but evaporated in today’s febrile political environment, the UK must find other means and attractions to ensure it secures access to new medicines and devices. 

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