30 Sep 2022

What we can conclude about big and small pharma is that, on the whole, it behaved extraordinarily well during the pandemic. It was rigorously disciplined, highly organised and very collaborative. Presented with a once-in-a-generation challenge and opportunity it did not cut corners, promote false marketing claims or extract excess profits.

This is how Martin Van Der Weyer, The Spectator’s Business Editor described the pharmaceutical industry in his book on capitalism, The Good, The Bad and The Greedy.

The UK contains the third largest life sciences cluster in the world through the combination of Oxford, Cambridge and London.  The potential for our ailing economy and NHS patients to benefit from this sector is huge. Jamie Macfarlane, the CEO of Creator Fund, a Venture Capital fund investing in European university start-ups described in an article for The Times in September how Manchester University invented the contraceptive pill, MRI scanners were created in Nottingham and LCD scanners came from Hull. The UK Government itself has produced multiple policy documents seeking to encourage further growth in the life sciences sector in the UK, the latest iteration being the Life Sciences Vision.

And yet, what importance does Prime Minister Truss’ new government place on life sciences and big and small pharma that plays such an important role in the UK ecosystem. Life sciences as a term has been mentioned in speeches by both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor in his “mini-budget”. But will they re-commit to the ambition of the Life Sciences Vision? What steps will they take to secure greater investment from global headquarters into the UK? There seem to be a political consensus that “life sciences” is generally a good thing and a growth area for the economy, but where do pharmaceutical companies sit in that assessment? To borrow from Martin Van Der Weyer, do Truss and Kwarteng see them as good, bad, greedy even?

The pharmaceutical industry is, of course, only one small part of the rich and complicated sector of life sciences. The development of the Covid vaccines has been a crash course in how this ecosystem works. It was never just one person stumbling across some mould on bread in the UK laboratory that produced penicillin (an anecdote beloved of Truss’ immediate predecessor).

Penicillin was the discovery of a team of academics and when Ernst Chain, one member of the British team who discovered the antibiotic, went to the director of the Medical Research Council to patent the drug in the hope of using the royalties to pay for more research, he was told commercialisation was “unseemly”. His partner, Howard Florey went to the US and after many complicated discussions, and the need for a treatment for the horrendous infections caused by the Second World War injuries, finally accelerated the demand for this complex product to be mass produced in the US. It was then sold back to the UK health system at a profit[1]. Just like MRI scanners, the contraceptive pill and LCD scanners. Penicillin is often used as an example of how the UK makes world changing discoveries; but should also be a parable for how, too often, UK Plc and the taxpayer don’t benefit from that great science.

Ensuring the life sciences is the growth engine of our economy must be a cross-departmental priority of Truss’ new government.

Ensuring the life sciences is the growth engine of our economy must be a cross-departmental priority of Truss’ new government. It will take alignment between Robert Jenrick MP the new Minister of State at the Department of Health with responsibility for Life Sciences, Nusrat Ghani MP, Minister of State at the Department for Business, Education and Industrial Strategy, who is chairing the Life Sciences Council and HM Treasury to address the challenges businesses face when considering investing in the UK. Previous Conservative governments have poured time and effort into plans to make the UK the global hub for life sciences. Rather than spending more time writing about how to make that goal happen, Jenrick and Ghani have the opportunity to act upon those words and work with big and small pharma to grow the UK sector that has such economic promise. The prize would be to ensure the UK is never again the country that invented the brilliant idea only to have it sold back to us by more commercially savvy nations.

[1] “Pharma: Greed, Lies and the Poisoning of America” Gerald Posner 2018