Budget 2021: Sunak focuses on vaccine development to restart economy

UK chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced a budget loaded with initiatives designed to kick-start the UK’s economy as it recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, with vaccine development, pharma and life sciences playing a key role.

The ongoing fight against COVID-19 was a top-line feature of the budget announcement, with an extra £1.65bn to ensure the vaccination roll-out continues to be a success.

Sunak pledged £28 million towards the UK’s capacity for vaccine testing, support for clinical trials and to improve the ability to acquire samples of new COVID-19 variants.

There will be £22 million to fund a study to test effectiveness of combinations of different COVID-19 vaccines, as well as the world’s first study assessing effectiveness of a third vaccine dose to improve the response against current and future variants.

In a separate announcement, the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA), issued guidance outlining plans to fast-track modified vaccines for new coronavirus variants.

The guidance comes from the ACCESS Consortium of regulators from the UK, Australia, Canada, Singapore and Switzerland.

Instead of large phase 3 trials, the MHRA will require studies showing immune responses for tweaked versions of previously approved vaccines, in line with similar guidance issued by the FDA late last month.

The government has already pledged £9 million in clinical scale mRNA manufacturing to create a library of vaccines against COVID-19 variants – and in his budget announcement, Sunak gave a further £5 million to the project.

A scheme providing £500 payments to people self-isolating has been extended in England until the summer.

There were other measures aimed at boosting the life sciences industry, which has seen record levels of investment during the pandemic.

A consultation on how to reform R&D tax credits will give the pharma industry an opportunity to have a say in policy decisions.

In the meantime, a 130% business tax “super deduction” for capital investment in new equipment will help companies including life sciences rebuild capacity.

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) also approved of a new high-skilled visa scheme that it said would help attract talent in the future.

Richard Torbett, chief executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, said: “We look forward to working with the government on these exciting opportunities for the future of British science and medicines development.”

BIVDA, the trade association for British in-vitro diagnostic companies, supported the “super-deduction” policy.

BIVDA CEO Doris-Ann Williams said: “This new policy will allow IVD companies and our wider life sciences sector to invest in their businesses with confidence, by cutting companies’ tax bills by 25p for every pound they invest in new equipment.

“This will provide a major incentive to modernise, digitise and grow companies across the country. Companies need to invest in cutting-edge technologies to ensure our IVD sector remains world-leading, and this is a welcome policy.”

Will Fraser-Allen, managing partner at investment management firm Albion Capital, noted Sunak’s support for startups that have been leading the economy recovery despite the dire economic conditions.

Fraser-Allen said: “Typically, UK scale ups provide solutions to significant, previously unsolved problems and the most successful are able to build a ‘moat’ of differentiation that separates them from competitors.

“They often operate in ‘mission-critical’ areas of business offering services that cannot be switched off – for example, cybersecurity, remote working, digital medicine – even during a global health crisis and economic downturn.

“We believe they will be key to creating jobs and driving improved prosperity by accelerating the development of the digital economy and rapid adoption of digital healthcare.”

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