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Brexit, box sets and the big reset

10 Oct 2016

Dr Virginia Acha, Executive Director for Research, Medical & Innovation at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), looks at the challenges facing the Life Sciences sector following the Brexit result.

We’ve all heard about the marshmallow test. Self-discipline is a strong predictor of success.  Yet so much is designed to facilitate instant gratification these days; we don’t like to be left waiting. 

Consider how we watch television in 2016. I could wait for next week’s episode, or I could watch it at my convenience on an on-demand service, or from a box set, in a marathon viewing session. The latter, now called ‘binge watching’ is something we embrace, and is even the subject of scientific research. Whether it actually is a good thing or not is up for debate, but it demonstrates that we don’t like to wait, and that our patience is becoming ever shorter, with a lack of practice.

This is where we’re at with Brexit. We’re just 3 months after the Referendum, but the noise becomes louder on a daily basis for greater clarity on how the UK will leave the European Union, and how we will refashion our relationship with Europe and the rest of the world. In the last seven days, the Government has begun to set out its stall, and the clock has started ticking for the filing of Article 50 – “no later than the end of March next year”.  So although there is still much left to be defined, even the start of a timeline has been welcomed by people in the UK, in Europe, and globally – notwithstanding disagreement over any future direction. Yet this shows me that despite the impatience and clamour for detail, in no way would it be prudent to fast-forward Brexit straight to the end.

Representing the research-based Pharmaceutical Industry here in the UK, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) responded quickly to the outcome of the vote, working with the then Minister for Life Sciences, George Freeman, to establish a task force for the sector. Together with our colleagues at the BioIndustry Association (BIA), we were charged with the task of bringing together industry experts across our membership, and across the fields of medical technology, diagnostics, over the counter medicines, generic medicines and animal health, to summarise the key challenges and opportunities that must be addressed in the negotiations. Over July and August, we worked with PwC to hold over 50 hours of workshops, drawing on expertise from over 150 people from 90 organisations. The summary of this work provided the basis for beginning of discussions with Government and the result stands as Life Sciences’ starting point for the months, and years, of negotiations to come.

What this has established is that in Life Sciences, working out Britain’s future working relationship with the EU and the rest of the world is set to be daunting and complex. Yet for investors and companies, long periods of uncertainty will continue to be unwelcome. The question is how do we avoid the “under construction” sign that may divert projects, investments and opportunities away from a country undergoing such major change? The answer must be to manage the tension between wanting clarity and detail today, but delivering well-considered plans and proposals for tomorrow.

As we work to reset the UK as a place to do business and research in Life Sciences, four priorities need to be kept in mind. Firstly, how do we reinforce our strengths in research and innovation? The UK has heritage and history of excellence in medical science, and in the coming months and years, we will need to reassert our scientific community as both a contributor and a leader in international network. There will be the practicality of accessing funding and membership in research platforms, as well as exploring new opportunities for partnership – both within but also beyond the EU. If the Government is keen to demonstrate that the “UK is open for business”; we should also ensure that the “UK is open for innovation”, pursuing every opportunity we can to demonstrate how science can be of benefit to patients and society.

Secondly, we need to agree on a way forward to sustain the regulation that underpins the discovery, development, manufacturing and supply of medicines. It’s taken over forty years for Europe to establish an effective EU-wide framework of regulation that enhances safety for patients and enables effective innovation – and it remains a work in progress. As part of this our own regulator has been a leading contributor, and we should seek explore all opportunities for regulatory cooperation between the Medicines & Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and the EU that would continue to deliver valued clinical research, access to innovative medicines and a safety system that will be of benefit of patients here in the UK and across Europe. A reset of our regulatory relationship with Europe in this particular case doesn’t have to involve a revolution, especially when the end result could be one that leaves the UK left behind.

Thirdly, medicines are developed, manufactured and distributed on a global basis, with the complexity of supply chains established to follow trading arrangements. To minimise disruption and cost of delivering medicines for patients, we should look to Government to negotiate the possibility of continuing the free trade and movement of such vital goods and crucial capital across borders. From financial services to the automotive industry, we know this is a sentiment shared by many sectors of the economy.  Yet the importance of this for medicines goes beyond any benefit to business – and we should consider the potential impact of changes to this system on public health.

Finally, to continue to discover and deliver the very latest medical science, we need to be able to recruit and retain the very best from overseas, to add value and enhance our existing landscape as well as work alongside home-grown talent of our own. We mustn’t forget that cutting-edge science is collaborative endeavour, and our businesses are only as strong as the highly skilled individuals that work in them. This won’t just be a necessity for industry, but for the wider research and health community in the UK too. In drug discovery, companies working in partnership with great scientific minds from universities, research charities, the NHS and many more partners, is the new normal. Only by attracting the best and brightest, will we continue what is a great legacy of UK science – being the home of the melting pot and meeting point of great minds.

As we’ve identified, every issue affecting Life Sciences has the potential to be complex and crosses over what will be many of the chief negotiation concerns of Government. Because of that, these next months and years will demand a lot of patience – and at the outset, we must accept that we may not get it all. Yet what we know is that Brexit is set to be an interesting watch, but the only way to work through it is to avoid the temptation of skipping to the end. We need to get off the couch, play our part in scripting each episode, and reset a course that secures our future scientific success.

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