Brexit and life sciences: a British conundrum, an Australian perspective
Britain has a long tradition of excellence in developing medical breakthroughs. The breakthrough that transformed the world of medicine, penicillin, was discovered by Alexander Fleming, a Brit from Scotland, in 1928. But it was an Australian, Howard Florey, who during World War II led the team at Oxford University and, together with Ernst Chain, a refugee from Nazi Germany, took Fleming’s scientific discovery and turned it into an antibiotic that could be used to treat infections. Fleming and Florey met at Oxford in 1940.
There are more opinion pieces and blogs written about Brexit each day in Britain right now than there are dogs being walked around Hampstead Heath. Amid the myriad of the discussions about Brexit and its impact on Britain, one key issue is how Britain’s economy will need to evolve with the departure from the EU. Many commentators, from the Prime Minister down, have suggested that Britain will need to change its economic and industrial strategy, essentially pivoting the British economy to a more global focus.
There is a major revamp of British trade and industrial policy underway, driven by the imperative for Britain to be a more self-reliant, globally competitive economy once it leaves the EU in 2019. The British Government has just released a major new industrial strategy with both eyes firmly fixed on Brexit.
Britain is also revamping its trade policy to focus more on the World Trade Organization (WTO) multilateral system and developing new trade agreements with non-EU countries. At the same time, the British Government is wanting to negotiate a good trade deal with the EU post-Brexit and develop a transition plan for trade and regulations after Britain leaves in 2019. It’s a major public policy juggling act. The business sector is pushing for some certainty on the transition arrangements as soon as possible.
For the British pharmaceutical industry, Brexit represents both a risk but also an opportunity. British and other European pharmaceutical industry associations have warned that there are real risks from the unravelling of integrated supply chains in Europe which could undermine the availability of medicine for patients in both the UK and Europe if regulatory issues are not resolved. Every month 45 million of EU patients’ medicine packs are supplied from the UK, while 37 million UK patients’ medicine packs are supplied from the EU. This is one of the key transition issues the British Government will have to address soon. The free movement of highly skilled industry staff across borders between Britain and EU countries is another issue, as is simply having enough time to sort out all of the issues ahead of the March 2019 deadline. Getting a suitable transition plan for regulation of medicines as soon as possible is also critical.
The pharmaceutical industries in Britain and the rest of Europe, led by their respective industry associations, have spent a significant amount of effort working out how they are going to manage Brexit in a way that ensures sustainability of the industry and continued patient access to medicines in both geographies. Also involved have been their respective biotech sectors. It’s an example of the private sector taking the lead to find policy solutions and not waiting for governments to come up with all the answers.
The opportunity is that Britain’s life sciences sector is key to Britain’s post-Brexit economic future. It’s one of the four priority sectors recognised by the British Government in its new post-Brexit industrial strategy released recently. The strategy builds on a recent life sciences report and includes agreements on private investments in research facilities, collaborative research programs on solutions to healthcare challenges, commitments on manufacturing and collaboration with the National Health Service, big data, skills, infrastructure and regional clusters. The life sciences industry is already one of Britain’s most productive industry sectors with a long tradition of discovering and developing new medicines and vaccines.
On the back of the British Government’s search for a new trade and investment strategy, there are real opportunities for Britain and other non-EU countries, including those in the British Commonwealth, to build economic, trade, investment and scientific links. There have already been discussions of the idea of trade agreements with Commonwealth countries like Australia, Canada, India and Singapore. The life sciences industry could feature in all of these discussions.
In addition to bilateral trade agreements between countries, is it too much to dream of the Commonwealth countries teaming up to breathe new life into multilateral trade liberalisation under the WTO, as has been foreshadowed in the British Government’s recent trade strategy? Given the breadth of countries that are members of the British Commonwealth ranging from some of the world’s wealthiest, through emerging markets to least developed countries, getting these countries to agree on an approach to international trade could be a major stimulus to the WTO multilateral trade negotiations. It’s likely to be a hot topic in next year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting which is being hosted in London.
The potential exists for pharmaceuticals and life sciences to play a key part of trade and investment agreements between Britain and other non-EU countries, with the sector driving a trade and investment agenda. Just as the British and other European pharmaceutical industry associations have been leading on the issues of Britain’s exit from the EU, other national pharmaceutical industry associations from non-EU countries could work with the British industry and their national governments in identifying areas of mutual interest that could form the backbone of any future trade agreements, be they bilateral or multilateral.
Britain and Australia, for example, already have a tradition of scientific endeavour and collaboration in medicines. Today there are obvious areas for collaboration in pharmaceuticals and life sciences between the two countries that could feature in a future trade and investment agreement. These include regulatory reform, harmonisation, investment promotion, joint R&D projects, venture capital funding, fostering public and private sector collaboration, removing any remaining trade barriers, skilled migration, confirming sound intellectual property policies, promoting joint clinical trials, joint vaccine development and collaborative industrial development strategies, to name a few.
As people start recovering from the ‘shock and awe’ of the Brexit vote, the opportunity is there for the life sciences sectors in Britain and other countries to be part of the solution by working together, and with their respective governments, to drive a positive trade and investment agenda. This agenda could drive the development of new scientific discoveries, promote the development of new medicines, and improve global health for patients around the world.
It would be a team effort that would do Fleming and Florey proud.