The Slow Death of UK Life Sciences

Technology Policy Science & Innovation

The Slow Death of UK Life Sciences

Posted on: 28th November 2022
Paul Blakeley
Life Sciences Policy Lead

Setting out the Life Sciences Vision little more than a year ago, the then Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng extolled the potential of a sector that was a “beacon of hope” for the UK. With recent successes such as the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, and a solid backbone built on world leading universities, innovative companies and the unparalleled potential of cradle to grave NHS data - it was a compelling story. But nearly 18 rocky months on and an area that is critical to the country’s aims of being a “Science Superpower” is at risk. Without bold and consistent action, one of the UK’s major success stories faces the prospect of a slow and lingering death. 

This weekend saw the sector thrown a lifeline with the PM announcing £113m of funding to tackle four of the key missions set out in the Life Sciences Vision - cancer, obesity, mental health and addiction. This was reiterated during Steve Barclay's speech at the Spectator's Health Summit earlier today, with the Secretary of State also calling for the UK to embrace prevention, early-intervention and personalised care to improve our national health and future prosperity.

The Life Sciences sector will be at the heart of this agenda. In the past decade, biotech and the life sciences has begun transforming the world of medicine. The US has been at the forefront of this revolution, but the UK has also been a frontrunner. We have punched well above our weight in life sciences R&D, seen landmark investments in the sector, including a £1bn agreement with Moderna, and grown an industry that employs over 260,000 people across more than 6,300 businesses and generates an annual turnover of over £88bn.

However, after a turbulent political year, life sciences is another area which the government is at risk of letting slip. Despite today’s announcement, there is still no published plan to fully implement the Life Sciences Vision and the impact of this inaction is visible across the sector. UK manufacturing investment is falling, as are UK exports. We’re seeing a decline across all phases of UK clinical research and a significant decrease in our share of global investment in Life Sciences R&D. And as Paris pulls ahead of the LSE as Europe’s premier stock market, our life science innovators are still unable to access the capital they need to grow within the UK.

A common thread runs through all these issues: our outdated and uncompetitive commercial environment, which Brexit has so far exacerbated, rather than fixed. This comes at a time when other countries are investing heavily in their life science capabilities. Technological superpowers such as the US and China lead the pack, but others including France, the UAE and increasingly India are showing they understand the importance of this sector for a healthy and robust modern economy.

If the UK wants to continue to compete in the global life sciences race, a more nuanced and less ‘zero sum’ approach to commercial interactions between the NHS and industry is needed. The NHS is on its knees, with rising pressures and limited resources. It has to work with industry if it is to survive and rebuild.

Unfortunately, what we are seeing from the NHS and government suggests we’re not serious about solving these problems. This month’s Autumn Statement tightened the squeeze on smaller Life Science innovators, with a cut to SME R&D tax-credits chain that will reduce the value of the scheme by 50%.

And when the NHS has entered innovative commercial arrangements with industry, they have met with very limited success. Take the example of Inclisiran, an innovative long-acting injectable to lower cholesterol in those at risk of stroke. A flagship partnership was announced between the NHS and Novartis last year, which was supposed to have enabled 300,000 patients to benefit from this potentially lifesaving drug. But roll-out across primary care has been disappointing meaning thousands of patients have missed out and investor confidence in the UK has been severely damaged.

These issues aren’t just apparent in individual deals and plans for delivery. The rising rates of reimbursement under the government’s flagship commercial agreement with industry for branded medicines (VPAS) is causing many pharma companies to look to other markets to launch new drugs.

As a result, the sector is voting with its feet. The lack of sufficient commercial flexibility or use of novel commercial arrangements has led innovative companies, like Bluebird Bio, to pull out of the UK and Europe entirely.

Meanwhile promised improvements to the UK life sciences ecosystem continue to be delayed – with the NHS’s procurement of a Federated Data Platform to capitalise on the potential of data to improve health research and delivery, having been pushed back multiple times.

This all paints a stark and more realistic picture about the state of UK Life Sciences. It begs the question, what must we do to restore investor confidence and ensure the UK remains a world-leading life sciences location?

First, the UK needs to regain its mantle at the forefront of life science and health innovation. The Accelerated Access Collaborative, the Academic Health Science Networks and the Applied Research Collaborations have all made important headway in supporting the development and adoption of innovation within the NHS. But we need to go further and faster. The formation of the new NHSE Transformation unit under Tim Ferris creates the opportunity to review and revitalise our offer to industry. And landmark initiatives like Our Future Health, show how government and life science companies can work together to deliver a system which focusses on prevention, early intervention and personalised health.

Second, the NHS needs to capitalise on new commercial flexibilities and ensure flagship deals have the support they need ‘on the ground’ to be implemented. The recent launch of the Innovative Medicines Fund is a good start, but we also need to adopt new models, like outcome-based payments, if we’re going to unlock the true potential of precision and genomic medicines to cure disease.

Third, and most important, the UK government needs to send a clear and unambiguous signal to the global markets that is serious in its support for Life Sciences. In 2023, the government will begin renegotiating VPAS at a time when dissatisfaction with the current scheme is growing across global board rooms. Whilst controlling NHS costs must remain paramount given mounting spending pressures, the government must also be more creative when negotiating the successor scheme. This means creating targeted incentives to reward both the companies that are developing effective innovations and those in the NHS who are making use of them.

Today’s announcement is a good start and will be rightly celebrated at the UK’s Life Science Council this afternoon with leaders from across government, industry and the NHS.

But we must go further to keep this momentum going and deliver on the promises of the Life Science Vision. Because as a winter chill settles across the country, the same frostiness towards the UK is spreading across global board rooms.

We must act if we’re going to keep our seat at the top table. If we fail, our economy, our NHS and our people will suffer.

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