Creating a global life sciences superpower from the lessons of COVID

It’s time to take what the UK has learnt about the “Holy Trinity” of government, academia, and industry and apply it to creating a “life sciences superpower”, says health secretary Matt Hancock.

The UK’s life sciences industry has “achieved in months what usually takes years” – and in doing so has built a solid foundation for meeting future challenges.

That’s according to health secretary Matt Hancock, who addressed the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry’s (ABPI) online conference last week.

Explaining that he had just received his first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, Mr Hancock said: “It really crystallised for me the job the life sciences industry has done over this past year. As an industry we have moved with extraordinary speed to build the defences we needed.” Despite being in an ongoing “race against time to save lives”, we have seen “some incredible results”, he said.

“One year ago, the number of people we could test for COVID in a day stood in five figures. Last month, we tested nearly 2 million people in a single day because of advances in the diagnostics industry,” said Mr Hancock.

“We didn’t have treatments for COVID, so we found them: dexamethasone for example. Before the pandemic, we didn’t make any vaccines in this country, and now we are manufacturing millions.”

All of this was made possible, Mr Hancock went on, by the UK’s existing science infrastructure, including NHS data, pro-innovation regulators, and elite research institutions.

“It is a real tribute to our life sciences sectors and a clear signal of what we can do if we work together… but despite all this good news, we still face come real challenges,” he said, pointing to fact that last week saw the highest recorded number of global infections since the pandemic began.

Building on success

It is time to take what was learnt during the pandemic and apply it to current and future challenges, said Mr Hancock.

He said: “It is no longer about getting us back to where we were. It’s about charting a new, better course… and transforming the UK into a life sciences superpower. I know that is an ambition you all share.”

Following on from the success of the vaccine taskforce, the Government has now established a similar initiative for antivirals, which the health secretary described as “the next frontier” in the fight against COVID-19.

“Its mission is to search for the most promising new drugs, speed up their development and deployment here in the UK, and have them ready for deployment this year,” he explained.

“We need to get to a world where we take our tests at home if you test positive, you take your antivirals at home: that is the next national mission.”

It is not all about COVID, though, and Mr Hancock said it was important to channel new learnings and thinking into tackling pre-existing health challenges. One positive to come out of the pandemic, for example, is an increased public interest in health research.

“Let’s harness that enthusiasm. COVID has been a global mission but so many other noble missions still lie ahead – tackling cancer, developing treatments for dementia, preventing heart disease, and so much more.”

“It is no longer about getting us back to where we were. It’s about charting a new, better course… and transforming the UK into a life sciences superpower. I know that is an ambition you all share”


Holy Trinity

Success relies on the “Holy Trinity” of government, academia, and industry working together to ensure new treatments are developed, tested, and deployed as soon as possible, he said.

Regulators must be ready to “embrace the breakthrough technologies that can help us tackle some of the most pressing population health burdens”, and to enable cross-border clinical trial designs.  The Government is also leading on investment, he went on, with schemes such as the Life Sciences Investment Programme, which aims to improve access to access late-stage capital for science SMEs.

“There are also areas where industry can lead,” Mr Hancock told the conference, such as manufacturing. “There’s no question that when it comes to manufacturing medicines and vaccines on a commercial scale, we have fallen behind. Far too many British breakthroughs are being manufactured elsewhere.”

UK-based manufacturing not only creates jobs, but it brings the whole process closer to research and to patients, he said.

“COVID-19 has revealed how much our resilience to future emergencies really depends on our homegrown manufacturing capability. We have proved that we can build a manufacturing base, and that we can do it quick. We’ve done this on vaccines, and we’re doing it in diagnostics,” said Mr Hancock.

The Government was committed to investing in infrastructure, and to ensuring companies that manufacture products in the UK are able to export them to their destination markets, he added.

Mr Hancock also announced further investments into the UK’s genomics capabilities, including a programme to sequence new-borns to address an under-representation of ethnic minorities in genomic datasets, and data infrastructure.

“The NHS means we have an opportunity to use data to save lives better than anywhere else, but it is a gift that is not yet fully unwrapped,” he said.

“R&D-ready data”, he said, would enable organisations to strengthen the power of their studies, increase the diversity of participants and bring medicines to market safer and faster.

Debt of gratitude

Mr Hancock closed his talk by thanking the industry for its work over the last year.

“You’ve achieved some amazing things. We’re running ground-breaking clinical trials on treating COVID and we’re vaccinating our way out of this pandemic. This is all been possible because… we came together to meet the challenges we collectively share.

“In my view, the best way for us to show that gratitude is to help you to do more… to meet the challenges of the future – when we won’t just recover from this pandemic, but we’ll build back better,” he said.

About the author

Amanda Barrell is a freelance health and medical education journalist, editor and copywriter. She has worked on projects for pharma, charities and agencies, and has written extensively for patients, healthcare professionals and the general public.