MAGGIE PAGANO: Pharma industry doing so well because ministers and commerce have been collaborating at an exceptional level for some decades
Describing any British industry as world-class these days is sure to get you a poke in the eye from critics who are contemptuous of so-called Anglo-Saxon ‘exceptionalism’.
Yet I am going to risk a black eye and say there are a couple of exceptions, one of them being the UK’s thriving pharmaceuticals and life sciences sector which is without question up there at the top of the class.
Our scientists are brilliant at coming up with drugs and therapies as we have just seen with the latest approval of GSK’s HIV drug and a cancer drug from Astrazeneca, which also hopes to have the Covid-19 vaccine it has developed with Oxford University approved by the end of the year. And of course there is the swiftness with which the authorities approved the roll-out of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid vaccine.
World-class: Our scientists are brilliant at coming up with drugs and therapies
It’s no accident the pharma industry is doing so well. But the reasons why the sector is so innovative – which may surprise observers who carp about how the Government does not do enough to support industry – is the way ministers and commerce have been collaborating at an exceptional level for some decades. For example, it was David Cameron who appointed the world’s first life sciences minister – George Freeman – and created the Government’s first Life Sciences Industrial Strategy. This brought together organisations from across the spectrum – charities, big and little pharma, the Wellcome Trust, patients, the NHS and trade bodies – to bash heads and work out tactics to improve research and investment.
Simultaneously the UK has seen the most extraordinary eco-system emerge between universities, hospitals and private industry through the golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London, and increasingly with other clusters across the regions.
Add to this network, the massive database provided by the NHS and the National Institute for Health Research enabling clinical ‘bench to bedside’ research, and you have another form of indirect government support. Back in April, the Department of Health, the NHS and Oxford University launched the world’s biggest controlled trial of Covid-19 treatments, which included thousands of patients and 30 different treatments.
There are other factors but it’s the collaboration which is second to none. The industry is also one of the faster growing in the country. As well as the UK’s two global giants, GSK and Astrazeneca, there are 6,000 or so specialist life science companies that turn over billions a year and employ hundreds of thousands of people.
Most of the world’s top pharma companies have UK bases, drawing on the latest innovations from rare diseases to gene therapy.
Sensibly, the Government wants to capitalise on the UK’s strength by speeding up the approval of new drugs and other treatments. After the success of the vaccine, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency – now separate from the EU – is launching a new innovation licensing pathway next year, aimed at accelerating the approval process with rolling reviews, helping companies with manufacturing and attracting more inward investment.
This is a laudable ambition. But will it work? The UK’s own market for drugs is only 3 per cent of world sales. This suggests that it will only be worthwhile for overseas companies to use the UK’s new procedures if they are confident their treatments will be approved and used swiftly – and approved elsewhere. If the Government is to make this pathway work, the regulator will have to show its evaluation processes are not just world-class but world-leading.
Watch those curves
Watching the unravelling of a once successful empire – even one owned by that rascal Philip Green – is never fun because of the jobs lost and careers wrecked.
Yet there are a few glimmers of hope coming from Arcadia’s collapse, especially for those who may have, how shall we say, added a little padding during lockdown. Australia’s City Chic Collective has bought Evans, the ladies’ plus-size fashion chain, from the administrators.
While Evans has had a good run over the last year, most sales have now moved online so sadly all stores and concessions will be closed with hundreds of jobs lost.
But City Chic’s boss, Phil Ryan, wants Evans to get plumper, and plans to use the site as a launch pad from which to sell to Europe’s larger ladies. Ryan puts it more politely: ‘Our vision has always been to lead a world of curves.’
The global market is worth $50billion, and can only get curvier if we are kept under house arrest for much longer. Clearly a man to watch.