A COVID Dividend | Brunswick
Perspectives

A COVID Dividend

Scientific success during the pandemic is a shot in the arm for UK biotech.

Around the world, biotech is riding high as the world turns to scientists to lead it out of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet perhaps nowhere are hopes higher than in Britain, where scientific success in the fight against COVID-19 has served to underscore the potential of the country’s life sciences sector.

The alignment of esteemed academic institutions, nimble regulation and the smart use of data has proved a potent mix in the battle against the virus.

Rapid vaccine development and deployment, together with mass testing that included a world-leading program of genomic sequencing to find new variants, stand out among notable successes. They have helped put the UK on a road to recovery faster than most other countries, despite a slow initial government response in March 2020.

Now the biotech and pharma community, together with academics and government ministers, hope to translate that into a permanent advantage.

Professor Chris Molloy, Chief Executive of the Medicines Discovery Catapult, a government-backed innovation centre, believes this is a “watershed” moment for UK life sciences.

“What the pandemic has shown is that when everyone in the room has exactly the same aim, you can make phenomenal progress,” he said. “We’ve got a real opportunity in the UK now to recognize the exceptional power of that combination to translate our academic inventions into industrial products and services.”

Britain has always punched above its weight when it comes to pharmaceuticals. Over the decades, some 25% of the world’s top 100 selling medicines have been discovered in the UK, while its universities have spun off a slew of start-up biotech companies. 

But translating all that scientific expertise into commercial success for UK firms has not always been easy – especially in comparison with the United States, where multi-billion-dollar biotech companies on the East and West coast have long overshadowed Britain’s minnows.

Still, recent business interest in British life sciences has been on a sharp upward trajectory. Investor appetite for emerging healthcare technologies has been turbo-charged by the need to tackle coronavirus, and 2020 was the best year ever for investment, with UK biotech companies raising a record £2.8 billion in equity finance. What’s more, the investment bandwagon has continued into the early months of 2021, consolidating the country’s position as the third biggest global life sciences cluster behind San Francisco and Boston.

“The pandemic has revealed much more of the iceberg of life sciences expertise and capability in this country,” said Molloy, an honorary professor of cancer sciences at the University of Manchester. “Ultimately, good money follows good science and good management, so the investment boom is a significant vindication of that skill set.”

A key ingredient in the “secret sauce” of British science has always been a strong connection between academia and industry. That really came to the fore during the pandemic as the urgency of the task in hand accelerated the pace and depth of collaboration. The results were evident in several world-leading projects emanating from established seats of science.

One of the world’s top COVID-19 vaccines, for example, was discovered at the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute, and it is now being manufactured and distributed by UK-based AstraZeneca. The bulk of the large-scale virus sequencing work, meanwhile, was done at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge, an institution that is supported by the London-based Wellcome Trust. And the landmark RECOVERY trial, which saved an estimated 1 million lives worldwide by showing the benefit of using dexamethasone in severe COVID cases, was conducted by Oxford academics.

However, the pandemic has also revealed the capabilities of UK science beyond Oxford, Cambridge and London – the so-called “golden triangle” that links the nation’s two most famous universities and its financial centre. 

In particular, the north of the country has played a crucial role in the scientific battle against COVID-19.

When it came to creating the “Lighthouse Labs” for COVID-19 testing – the biggest diagnostic laboratory project in British history – health authorities relied on public and private sites across the country, with northwest England acting as a major hub.  (The new super-labs got their name because the PCR technology employed to detect the virus uses fluorescent light, provides illuminating data and is strong in a storm.)

Similarly, a concerted increase in vaccine manufacturing capacity to produce and package a range of different COVID shots involved facilities across the country, including northeast England, Scotland and Wales. 

The overnight boost to the country’s manufacturing and diagnostic capacity was an essential requirement to deal with the pandemic – but the upgrade in capacity will also deliver legacy benefits that will help the sector for years to come.

Ultimately, good money follows good science and good management.

Professor Chris Molloy Chief Executive of the Medicines Discovery Catapult

In effect, the necessities of the coronavirus crisis have ended up plugging important gaps in the national bioscience infrastructure, according to Molloy. “That is a dividend we will take from this pandemic. The enhanced ecosystem will support the next generation of companies,” he said. 

Over-arching all this is a drugs regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which has proved notably agile during the pandemic. The UK was the first country in the West to formally endorse a COVID-19 vaccine when it gave a green light to Pfizer/BioNTech’s shot in early December 2020.

Nonetheless, there is still more work to do to connect all the players in the life sciences ecosystem, which is where the Medicines Discovery Catapult (MDC) comes in. By acting as a national-scale R&D collaborator, the MDC can deploy its specialized assets, science and skills to nurture partnerships, find funding opportunities and help access other public and private sector skills across the UK.

“By connecting and helping across the life science continuum, the MDC raises the tide for everyone,” said Molloy, who helped establish the organization in 2016 and will be stepping down in September 2021.

“In the pandemic, we’ve seen the UK can do amazing things when there is a singularity of purpose. We need to take the culture of that into our recovery period because we can apply the same singularity of purpose in other areas – whether that is a war on cancer or disease associated with aging or the causes of obesity.”

In particular, the MDC works hard to industrialize and deploy new products and services through translational research, which involves leveraging emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, complex cell models and the latest advances in biological imaging systems. The aim is simple: to reduce the attrition rate as experimental compounds move through the development process.

“If you can be more predictive in the lab, then you can be more productive in the clinic,” Molloy said.

Maximizing this opportunity involves tapping into the UK’s thriving life sciences service and supply sector, which accounts for 90% of the industry’s small and medium-sized employment. That nexus of world-class support companies can help academics take ideas to the next level, assist drug developers to devise smarter ways of working and, ultimately, encourage more medicines to be developed in Britain rather than overseas.

All of which should shore up a sector that the government is relying on to deliver economic growth as Britain carves out its post-Brexit future.

Crucially, of course, the life sciences industry also needs a continuing flow of talent. The good news is that more young Britons are now taking science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) subjects at university than ever before – and Molloy believes COVID-19 will fuel that trend.

“In today’s world there is a much more porous membrane between academia and industry, creating a pull that goes back through colleges and into schools,” he said. “The pandemic has shown that science really matters and, hopefully, that has ignited something in the hearts and minds of youngsters who are trying to decide what to do with their lives.” 

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Ben Hirschler is a Senior Advisor based in Brunswick’s London office and a former global pharmaceuticals correspondent for Reuters.