UK highlights life sciences’ key role in post-COVID recovery

The UK government used the Queen’s Speech to set out its ambition to make the country a leader in life sciences, garnering a warm response from industry groups. 

The speech – an opportunity for Boris Johnson’s government to set out its plans for the year ahead after consolidating its position in last week’s local elections – focused on delivering a national recovery from the pandemic.

The UK economy shrank by 1.5% in the first three months of 2021, but gathered momentum in March as lockdown restrictions began to relax, although the economy is still 8.7% down on pre-pandemic levels.

Top of the list of course was the continuation of the COVID-19 vaccination rollout, supported by extra funding for the NHS, which will be the key to opening up the economy. And with biopharma thrust into the spotlight by COVID-19, there was unsurprisingly plenty in the new Parliamentary session for the industry to chew over.

Among 30 new bills planned, the much-anticipated Health and Care Bill promises to “empower the NHS to innovate and embrace technology” with patients set to receive “more tailored and preventative care, closer to home”.

A whitepaper looking ahead to the new bill released in February promises a ‘new-look’ NHS with less bureaucracy – particularly around procurement and data sharing – as well as big changes in funding flows, decision making and working practices.

The BioIndustry Association (BIA) said a key element is that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will be given much broader powers to intervene in the running of the NHS, opening the way for “greater political discussion and intervention in areas which for the last eight years have been solely in the gift of NHS England”.

That could include issues of close and direct concern to the biopharma sector, including medicines pricing and commercial agreements, according to the industry group.

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) said the new NHS legislation “will provide a once-in-a-decade opportunity to embed research at the heart of the NHS,” although it warned that investment in research and skills will be needed to support this vision.

The government also reiterated its to the Advanced Research and Innovation Agency (ARIA), which will fund high-risk, high-reward research, and pledged the “fastest ever increase in public funding for research”.

It also proposed legislation to support a “lifetime skills guarantee”, based on flexible access to high quality education and training throughout people’s lives via a new student finance system.

The BIA also pointed to an opportunity to free up subsidies for life sciences companies now that the UK has exited the EU and is no longer bound by EU State Aid rules, which its says have “prevented or hindered biotech companies’ access to grant funding”.

“The legislation announced in the Queen’s Speech will soon answer if this opportunity will be seized by the Government,” said the BIA.

MPs will now debate the speech over the next few days, and the legislation itself will be published in the coming months.

COVID-19 vaccine patent warning

The ABPI has also warned that waiving intellectual property (IP) protection for COVID-19 vaccines – as supported by the Biden administration in the US – is “not the solution” to broadening access to the shots.

“Companies have been working with international partners for months to scale up the supply of vaccines, voluntarily licensing and transferring technology where it safe to do so,” said ABPI chief executive Dr Richard Torbett.

“The real challenges are a lack of advanced manufacturing skills and critical raw materials,” he added. “Globally we must now focus on sharing excess doses of vaccines, maintaining the free movement of raw materials and properly funding COVAX – all of which the UK government has committed to doing.”

Busting patents could backfire by hindering vaccine scale-up and reducing the incentive to invest in vaccines and medicines  “including for future pandemics,” said Torbett.

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