ABPI chief exec on the UK industry’s learnings from COVID-19

The ABPI’s chief executive Dr Richard Torbett shares his views on how the industry has adapted to COVID-19 and explains why the post-pandemic future is looking bright for the UK industry.

January 2020 would have been an interesting time for anyone to start a new job, but for Richard Torbett, who moved into the chief executive position at the ABPI after five years at the Association, it meant taking the helm of an organisation that quickly found itself on the frontline of global efforts to fight a devastating pandemic.

“I had a 90-day plan that didn’t exactly pan out!” he says. “It’s been a very interesting year to kick things off.”

Soon the ABPI and the entire industry were facing the ripple effects of COVID-19, including a significant slowdown in non-COVID clinical research, which Torbett says was challenging for the industry to deal with.

“We’ve also seen a very mixed picture in the market for pharmaceuticals,” he says. “There are some areas where demand has been much higher than normal, but there are also an awful lot of areas where treatment was stopped altogether and has since restarted. That had a significant impact on companies.”

But Torbett says that right from the start of the pandemic there was a recognition of the challenges society and the NHS faced, and an “extraordinary” desire from the industry to support the national effort in every way it conceivably could.

“We’ve got so many great life science assets in the UK, but there are still some gaps – manufacturing capacity being one of them.”

“We had companies collaborating to develop laboratories. We had companies sourcing consumables for testing machines. There were companies that allowed their staff to volunteer to deliver medicines to vulnerable people, and many HCPs that work in the industry have gone back to frontline care.

“Now, in the second wave, we need to continue to support the NHS so that it can keep more of its core services going, including clinical research and non-COVID care, whilst also looking at how we can eventually emerge from the crisis as a stronger sector that can continue to support the economy and the health of the nation.”

Strength in the second wave

Luckily, Torbett says that there is a greater sense of certainty in the second wave, with “more of a rhythm” to what companies are doing.

“We’ve all been working in this very unusual situation for many months now, and companies have made significant efforts to make their facilities and their work COVID-secure.

“Companies will have to continue adapting to changing circumstances, but we will be closely monitoring how the virus is spreading around the country and how that impacts NHS activity.”

Luckily, Richard says that the industry has seen strong efforts from the NHS in keeping non-COVID care going during this new peak of infections.

“We’re very grateful for that. The health service is really going the extra mile this time around. The same is true for clinical research, and the support ministers like Lord Bethell have shown is sending a clear message that research continues to be important for the UK.”

A collaborative future

Increased levels of collaboration and joint working – both between the industry and the wider sector and between different pharma companies – have been something of a silver lining from the pandemic, and Torbett says this is happening at many different levels.

“Globally, we’ve seen a level of collaboration between companies that we’ve never seen before when it comes to sharing data, technology and evidence – and we’re seeing that on a more local level too. There have also been many pragmatic collaborations between companies, sites and regulators that have helped keep research and HTA going – such as the more flexible rules introduced by the MHRA.”

This extends to collaboration between industry and government. In the early days of this crisis, the whole life science community quickly came together with ministers, the NHS and central government officials to form the COVID Response Group, which has continued to operate throughout the pandemic and is now looking at plans for future recovery.

“We meet regularly with both health ministers and business ministers to talk through the full range of issues and challenges that the sector is facing in supporting COVID efforts, and how we can come out of it as a stronger industry,” says Torbett.

“It’s been great to see throughout the pandemic that the government has not just been focused on vaccines – the crisis has been a catalyst to consider what wider capabilities we need in this country, and where we are lacking.

“We’ve got so many great life science assets in the UK, but there are still some gaps – manufacturing capacity being one of them.”

To help ensure these positive steps can continue after the pandemic, the ABPI, together with the Association of British HealthTech Industries (ABHI), BioIndustry Association (BIA), British Generic Manufacturers Association (BGMA) and the British In Vitro Diagnostic Association (BIVDA), has put together a ‘Roadmap to Recovery’ to identify the areas where lessons from COVID can help strengthen the sector in the future.

“A huge part of this is that we want to massively increase our level of collaboration with the NHS to support the Long Term Plan,” Torbett says. “We’re asking how the industry can support a modernisation of care pathway to improve the efficiency of care and outcomes. If we can do that in a way that also makes the NHS more resilient and better able to deal with pandemics in the future, that’s all the better.”

Likewise, he hopes the crisis can be a springboard for a national conversation about what society should expect from the NHS, in order to facilitate greater self care.

“We need to really consider when people should go to a GP versus when they should go to a pharmacist or just buy OTC drugs. All of these questions are going to be really important for how we manage our own care and how the NHS can be sustainable in the future.”

Torbett says the UK sector also wants to shore up its “incredibly important” relationship with health charities.

“The difficulties that they’ve been going through over the current crisis really need to be reflected on. If we lose them it will be a massive problem. Because of that, we’re urging the government to support them.”

The road to a vaccine

Torbett is keen to highlight that many global companies developing vaccines have conducted some of the key research for their programmes in the UK.

“The level of collaboration that we have with the science base here is amazing. The £4.5 billion that gets spent by pharma on R&D in this country is significantly higher than what we spend in many other places. That means the global operations of companies in the UK are genuinely of worldwide significance, and the ABPI has been a voice for the global industry in this pandemic.”

This global effort, Torbett says, has been key to the extraordinarily quick development of vaccine candidates.

“The reason why we have been able to get a vaccine approved in this timeframe, and are reasonably confident that there will be more approvals down the line, is that the entire industry has downed tools on everything else and thrown its weight behind these efforts.

“We know vaccine development is incredibly risky and that things fail at the 11th hour all the time – but the fact that we have almost 200 candidates is gratifying and gives us some room to breathe, and it’s fair to say that the UK has played a very strong role in getting us there.”

About the interviewee

Dr Richard TorbettDr Richard Torbett joined the ABPI in July 2015 and previously held the role of executive director of economic, health and commercial policy. He has spent the last 14 years working in the pharmaceutical industry. Immediately prior to joining the ABPI he was the chief economist at the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA). He also spent six years at Pfizer, most recently as senior director and head of international affairs. Prior to joining the pharmaceutical industry, Richard worked as a government economist.