A Watershed Moment for UK Life Sciences Policy – How broken is it and do we need to fix it?

Our latest CIMR Debate in Public Policy examined the impact of the pandemic on life sciences in the UK and the learning to be taken forward by government, industry and academia.

The UK life sciences sector has undergone significant changes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, tearing through red tape to rapidly respond to the evolving crisis and forming unlikely partnerships to produce vaccines and countless other innovations.

In light of the publication of two government policy documents, the UK Innovation Strategy and Life Sciences Vision, this CIMR Debate in Public Policy examined whether the events of the past eighteen months are an anomaly in the long-term direction of UK life sciences policy, or the start of a new agenda for innovation and collaboration.

Chaired by Emma Palmer Foster, founder of EJ Palmer Consulting and PhD candidate at Birkbeck, this debate welcomed three eminent speakers to share insights into their experience of the pandemic’s impact on UK life sciences.

Dr Clive Dix, CEO of C4X Discovery

As Deputy Chair of the UK Vaccines Taskforce, Dr Clive Dix has been on the frontline of efforts to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. He commented on people’s resilience, adapting quickly to working from home and using new technologies to communicate. We have learned that we do not always need to spend time face to face or in the City to engage effectively with others.

However, Clive also noted that some people have lost out from reduced face to face interaction. Early career individuals and new starters may struggle to engage with a company and settle into a new role remotely.

Regarding the science community, Clive said: “We pulled together because we had a common enemy: COVID-19.” Academics, industrial scientists, commercial scientists and government bodies worked as one in partnership, providing access to a vast knowledge base.

Looking to the future, Clive warned against a return to “business as usual” in government, characterised by risk aversion and an adversarial approach which results in things moving very slowly. He argued that the Department of Health and Social Care is “not fit for purpose” as the body that dictates the way things are done. Instead, he called for a continuation of the types of partnerships borne out of necessity through the pandemic that made the UK life sciences sector stand out internationally.

Alex Sheppard, Co-Founder and CEO at Vatic

Alex Sheppard shared his experience as co-founder of an in vitro diagnostics start-up.

Having launched in March 2020, Vatic had no way of accessing lab facilities as the UK moved into lockdown. What followed was a “rocketship journey,” which began when Vatic convinced another company to incubate them and lend out lab space. Within a month of entering the lab, Vatic filed a patent for the production of a rapid COVID-19 antigen test.

Alex compared the mass-production of COVID-19 tests in the UK to flu-screening in the US, which represents a multi-billion-dollar market. He argued that the government has created a monopsony around testing, wanting to control the market and the accessibility of tests. This has changed what consumers expect of healthcare services.

Arguing that the branding around small pharma companies is shifting, Alex likened life sciences in the UK today to technology in Silicon Valley twenty years ago: “The best talent is moving into Europe because they have some of the best capabilities. They aren’t just hoovered up by large companies, they are alive to the opportunities in the start-up space.”

Dr Deborah Spencer, Deputy Head Innovation & Business Partnerships, University of Oxford

Working in business development for the University of Oxford, Dr Deborah Spencer’s team aims to develop long term, strategic relationships with industry.

Deborah shared her involvement in the development of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine and how the entire organisation pivoted to address the challenges of COVID-19: “Every part of the University focused on developing the vaccine at pace. At one point in 2020, there were 155 different Covid-19 projects being pursued across the University.”

The University’s response encompassed several different areas, including health monitoring technologies that allow distance between doctors and patients; rapid testing kits; triaging tools that help identify the patients who are most at risk; and low-cost ventilators.

The University will continue to work in partnership with industry in a number of upcoming research projects, notably a £1.49 million for the Legacy programme from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to investigate how ancestry and diversity influence how vaccines work in our cells. We have seen how different infections can affect different ethnic populations, this work will help us understand better immunity across ethnicities.

What next for the UK life sciences sector?

Questions from the audience took the discussion to America and to the future of life sciences.

Professor Helen Lawton Smith asked how UK life sciences compared to America. The panellists commented that America had plenty of funding, but was held back by regulatory policy at a time when rapid progress was made in the UK.

Professor Grazia Ietto Gillies asked to what extent industry collaboration helps or hinders international academic collaboration. Deborah responded that we have to be aware of politics, while remembering that science has no borders. Alex argued that research is not limited to universities and that the progress made by tech companies has transformed our view of where research comes from.

Wrapping up the session, Emma asked the panellists how we can keep the momentum going. Clive called for making the new industrial strategy more accessible and for the government to “put money where its mouth is to fund the things that the strategy can do.”

The recording of the workshop is available here