UK response to COVID-19 pandemic shows world-leading Life Sciences innovation

Notepad with writing, scissors, clock and facemaskThis article is written by Paul Gershlick, Partner and Head of Pharma & Life Sciences at national law firm VWV

To say it has been quite an 18 months is an understatement. The life sciences industry was hit hard in parts, with a pausing of clinical trials, investment in start-ups and prioritisation on COVID-19 treatments. However, that seems to have passed, with those areas bouncing back strongly. In the meantime, pharma sector players such as AstraZeneca and Pfizer have become the subject of household discussions.

Although a challenging time, the sector has shown exciting innovation, which are positive signs:

  • From first inception to mass roll-out, the vaccine took under one year rather than the usual 10 years. This is nothing short of remarkable.
  • The regulators played a huge part in that. Notably, the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency innovated in its approach to medicine approval, whilst not compromising on assessing safety or efficacy. The UK was the first country in the world to approve a vaccine to be used outside of clinical trials.
  • Collaborations came of age. The vaccine developed at the UK’s world-leading institution, Oxford University, needed strong collaboration with another big pharma UK player, AstraZeneca, in order to be rolled out. There were other successful collaborations.
  • The use of real-world data in the NHS saw the discovery that the inexpensive steroid, dexamethasone, could be re-purposed for treatment of COVID-19 patients, saving over one million lives worldwide.
  • The UK’s global lead in genomics was at the forefront of genomic sequencing to rapidly discover and understand different COVID-19 variants.
  • There has been a massive change in diagnostics, with testing widely available now, after being nowhere a few months ago.
Paul Gershlick headshot VWV

Paul Gershlick

The pandemic response has rapidly accelerated the innovation that was already taking place. The pharma industry and regulators have been looking for faster development, approval and roll-out of life-changing medicines, there have been key collaborations for some time, and there have been huge strides in the use of real-world data and genomics in recent years. The pandemic has acted as a catalyst.

The UK Government continues to see life sciences as a key industry and has new plans it is putting forward with a focus on an innovation agenda. The UK also continues to benefit from its unique position in having leading academic institutions, big pharma and the ability to tap into NHS patient data.

There are challenges for the UK in a post-Brexit world, with regulatory divergence from the EU and trade and access to skilled labour not being as straightforward. However, the UK continues to work with the EU as well as setting up new partnerships with others such as India. The pandemic response has also given huge cause for optimism and has shown how the UK is such an exciting place to be for life sciences.

What next for the Pharma & Life Sciences sector?

The big question is: where to go from here? Will the strides made in the last 18 months be translated into other disease areas such as cardiovascular, cancer, Alzheimer’s, rare diseases and the growing threat of anti-microbial resistance that could see tens of millions of people die following routine surgery by 2050 unless new antibiotics are discovered? Will there be the same drive without an immediate global emergency?

PING (Pharmaceutical Industry Network Group), the VWV law firm not-for-profit initiative, will be examining these issues with leading speakers at a Conference – “UK Life Sciences Opportunities in a Changed World” – for our clients and others from innovative start-ups through to established suppliers, distributors, wholesalers and others in the biopharma ecosystem later this year. Find out more about the event here.

Paul Gershlick is a Partner and Head of Pharma & Life Sciences at national law firm VWV. Paul can be contacted on 07795 570 072 or at pgershlick@vwv.co.uk.

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