With just five months to go until the UK divorces itself from the European Union, the conversation has stepped up a notch to the point where it’s impossible to flick through a newspaper or turn on the TV without hearing conversation surrounding Brexit. After nearly a year and a half of planning, it is still to be decided what precisely is happening on Brexit Day, and what kind of deal, if any, Britain will be handed.
Like virtually all of the UK population, I have no idea what is to come once Britain leaves the EU, and in particular to our Life Sciences sector. So, I signed up to Fierce Biotech’s Executive Summit to hear the opinion of a panel of experts as to what might happen to the world of healthcare post-Brexit. Speakers consisted of leaders of key Life Science corporations in the UK, including the Bioindustry Association, the AMR Centre, and the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult. They spoke about how they are planning for Brexit in terms of funding, staffing and any impact to longer term projects, as well as what opportunities may lay ahead once Britain has left the EU.
Brexit often has cynical connotations in the public eye. Most Londoners voted to remain, so when I arrived at the event, I expected this to be the general perspective of the audience and speakers. However, like the rest of the audience, the smiling optimism of the speakers surprised me. The first question that the panel fielded concerned the industry’s health in the current pre-Brexit limbo. They explained that the Life Sciences industry hadn’t experienced a quantifiable decline in funding or collaboration interest from their European partners since Britain’s decision to leave the EU. They even noted that 2018, so far, has seen a whopping record £1.5bn investment in Britain’s Biotech industry.
Overall, the speakers displayed huge confidence in the sector, along with some concerns worth bearing in mind, which broadly fell into the following topics.
No More Money Pot?
British researchers are concerned that funding from EU countries will be on the decline once Britain leaves the EU. The speakers gave their view that on the flip side, partly due to Brexit, private investment funding is strong, particularly from the US, with both academic and commercial sectors booming as a result. With groundbreaking drug results coming through, investors have been more willing to invest in earlier stages of research. Dr Peter Jackson, Executive Director for the AMR Centre, explained that some EU funded collaborative efforts are “fairly impenetrable”, so the UK often turns to the US as he believes that a “small amount of quick money is better than a large amount of slow money”.
More Agile and Innovative Approach to Drug Development
It was explored whether EU regulatory frameworks may promote or hinder the speed of innovation. A new EU Clinical Trials Regulation (Regulation 536/2014) will come into play next year in attempt to make clinical trial regulation more consistent across the EU, allowing sponsors to submit a single application when conducting trials in multiple countries. Once the UK leaves the EU, clinical trial sponsors in the UK will no longer automatically be eligible for the new legislation. Therefore, the UK will have an opportunity to adopt a more flexible approach regarding regulation. This could revolutionise clinical trials design, allowing the UK to innovate and focus on operating a more liberal, risk-based regulatory environment without over-regulation, giving patients access to treatments that are on the cutting-edge of medical developments.
Researchers are concerned that leaving the EU could establish barriers to scientific partnerships and talent from EU nationals that have provided a massive boost for British research. To plan for a potential brain drain, Matthew Durdy, Chief Business Officer at CGTC said it made them explore avenues outside of Europe for future collaborations. The CGTC now has deals with China and Canada, and he explained that it has made them more open to the rest of the world, which has been “a real positive for us.”. Dr Chris Doherty, Managing Director of Alderley Park, built on this by making the point that, as a nation, we may not be fully utilising our most qualified employees. Britain is lucky enough to have a strong education system with a rich supply of PhDs, however, as with many jobs in the science sector, school leavers are being trained to do the same job as doctorates. Chris believes that with the advent of Brexit, we can look towards developing more specialist, focused positions for highly qualified candidates to utilise Britain’s top-qualified talent, and potentially spur more intra-UK collaborations. The development of consortia within regions across the UK would enable funds to be pumped into areas outside of the capital and other key UK cities.
In summary, my main takeaway from the event was that the biggest risk of Brexit is the uncertainty. It’s hard for companies to plan around Brexit, especially when they don’t know exactly what they need to plan for. Fortunately, the UK has a dominant position and a longstanding history of breakthrough contributions from its scientists. From Isaac Newton to Stephen Hawking, and Charles Darwin to Richard Dawkins, the pursuit of knowledge and innovation is embedded in Britain’s national identity. As we await the finalisation of some sort of agreement with the EU next March, people are working on it so that natural selection will favour the UK to adapt in order to survive. W2O will continue working with its clients to help them innovate, collaborate, and utilise potential regulation flexibilities. As for now, the Life Sciences sector will remain “business as usual”.
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