Pharma and biotech warn of Brexit threat to science recruitment

The UK government says it wants to strike an ‘ambitious’ agreement with the EU over science R&D, and work closely with it over drug regulation.

A major part of the Brexit conundrum is not only science funding, but the free movement of scientific ‘talent’ – two issues of deep concern to the UK’s pharma and biotech sectors.

Yesterday the government published a new position paper in which it calls for a “far reaching science and innovation agreement” with Europe – and said it would be willing to continue to pay into EU science budgets.

The paper has been welcomed by the UK pharma trade body the ABPI and its biotech counterpart the BIA.

But there seems little chance of settling these matters soon, as Brexit talks are being held up by an impasse over the “divorce bill” the UK will have to pay as it quits the EU, preventing progress on other issues.

The paper ‘Collaboration on science and innovation’, notes that the UK has a “uniquely close relationship”, which could lead to a more ambitious agreement after Brexit.

The good news is that there seems to be a willingness to strike a deal on scientific research collaboration – the European Commission has also publicly stated that it wants to continue to collaborate scientifically with the UK after Brexit, because it has one of the strongest science bases in Europe.

However time is running out for a deal to be agreed before the planned Brexit date of 31 March 2019.

In response, UK pharma’s ABPI says it wants progress to ensure the science and technology collaborations between the EU and UK continue.

The UK has been a major player in the 80 billion euro Horizon 2020 scheme, and around the time of last year’s Brexit vote had secured around 15% of grants available for science projects under the initiative.

Only Germany has been awarded more grants, and the UK is heavily involved with the Innovative Medicines Initiative, a scheme jointly bankrolled by Horizon 2020 and pharma, which funds research into a plethora of projects in areas such as antibiotic resistance.

More than 90% of IMI projects have involved at least one UK institution, according to the position paper.

In the paper the government said it also wants a “close working relationship” with the European Medicines Agency after Brexit.

The EMA is set to leave its London headquarters after Brexit, and will also have to restructure so that other member states cover regulatory work conducted by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has said earlier this year that the UK cannot continue to operate as part of the EMA as this would make it subject to European Court of Justice decisions – and the document gives further insight into how the government intends to solve this problem.

Hunt told the House of Commons Health Select Committee earlier this year that the UK could recognise decisions made by the EMA and the document gives further insight about how these arrangements would work.

The EMA has arrangements in place to co-operate with other regulators around the world, such as the US, Canada, Japan, Switzerland, Australia, and New Zealand in areas such as safety, inspections and exchange of information. “These provide precedents which the UK and the EU could seek to build on,” the government said in the paper.

There have been also been suggestions the MHRA could participate in the EMA regulatory work, but separately issue its own licences, although there was no mention of this in the paper.

Yesterday also saw a leak of detailed draft Home Office proposals about how to curb migration into the UK post-Brexit.  These measures would seek to deter lower-skilled migrants from coming to the country – but have alarmed leaders across business sectors, who insist the economy depends on a flow of inward migration.

While the ABPI and the BIA did not respond to the leaked plans, they did emphasise the central importance of attracting international talent.

In its response to the paper, the ABPI said it was “essential” to ensure that the scientists are able to move freely between the UK and EU to allow them to conduct their research.

The ABPI's Mike Thompson

The ABPI’s Mike Thompson

BIA chief executive Steve Bates

BIA chief executive Steve Bates

Mike Thompson, ABPI CEO and Steve Bates, BIA CEO said in a joint statement: “Talent drives the strength, depth and quality of UK science, so, securing the continued mobility of UK and EU scientists would be the next logical and crucial step. These scientists have an important role to play in the future health, well-being and economic prosperity of Europe.

“As the paper recognises, ‘drug development is a global business’ and with timeframes getting tighter by the day, it’s essential that progress is delivered through negotiations with the EU to give industry confidence that UK and Europe will continue to be one of the best places in the word for developing and delivering the very best breakthroughs in medicine.”

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