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Life sciences in the UK after Brexit

The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union sent shockwaves across industries, including the life sciences sector. Many companies are grappling with uncertainty and are still struggling to understand the potential implications of Brexit on their operations. Despite this, some opportunities may arise, particularly for the Nordic region, which has close links with the UK’s life sciences industry.

The Brexit referendum resulted in several potential regulatory changes that will have an impact on the life sciences sector, including the potential divergence of UK and EU regulations, changes to the approval processes for new drugs, and the loss of access to funding from the European Investment Bank. However, the UK’s life sciences industry is highly skilled and globally competitive and the sector could continue to thrive even after Brexit.

This sentiment is echoed by industry experts, including Mike Thompson, CEO of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry. In an article published by The Pharma Letter, Thompson emphasized the UK’s strong heritage in life sciences and suggested that the industry could take advantage of new opportunities arising from Brexit, and noted that the UK’s exit from the EU could allow for more flexible and agile regulation, which could, in turn, enable companies to bring new drugs to market more quickly.

So, the fact that our regulation is going to be streamlined might mean that we end up being a test market for new products.”

Sally Shorthose of Bird & Bird, an international law firm, agrees saying, “We don’t have quite the same medical device regulation. We’ve always had a bit more latitude on advanced therapeutic and medical products because the UK is a bit more open than some environments. So, the fact that our regulation is going to be streamlined might mean that we end up being a test market for new products.”

 

Sally Shorthose, Partner, Bird & Bird

 

Clinical trials

Despite these potential opportunities, concerns remain about the impact on the UK’s life sciences industry. In an article published by The Guardian in February 2023, Emma Walmsley, CEO of pharmaceutical giant GSK, warned that the UK’s life sciences industry was at a “tipping point” and called for urgent action to protect it.

One area of particular concern was in clinical trials and that the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MRHA) needed to be “properly resourced to address the backlog and provide the right kind of timely advice and approval.”

Walmsley cited a lack of investment and rising costs as key challenges facing the industry. One area of particular concern was in clinical trials and that the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MRHA) needed to be “properly resourced to address the backlog and provide the right kind of timely advice and approval.”

Shorthose agrees, saying, “There was a real risk that if we would not be doing clinical trials, we would not be getting the best doctors.”

“However, with the UK having its own guidance about how to do trials, I’m sure our relationship with the EMA [European Medicine Agency] will evolve in a positive way,” she adds.

 

Emma Walmsley, CEO, GSK. Photo: Olivier Hess

 

A change in the atmosphere

The UK pharmaceutical industry has been working closely with the government to mitigate the impact of Brexit. The British government has also pledged to invest heavily in the life sciences industry, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announcing an earlier commitment to raise R&D investment to £20 billion a year by 2025, including funding for clinical trials and research, as well as tax incentives for businesses investing in R&D.

Shorthose believes that the change of leadership in the country is actually having a very positive effect on its relations with its close neighbors, and quite possibly in a broader context as well. This view is shared by Emma Walmsley, who earlier in the year stated, ”The result of the government’s Life Science Vision could bring £68 billion in additional GDP over 30 years.”

We have lost access to a very big market, and it’s become more challenging because there are still a lot of hurdles.”

Since Walmsley made those comments earlier this year, Shorthose suggests that there has been a change in the atmosphere.

“I think we are still settling down. We have lost access to a very big market, and it’s become more challenging because there are still a lot of hurdles. For pharmaceutical and medical device companies it’s more difficult to do business in the UK now, but there are also opportunities in that the UK is its own market as well.”

Opportunities for the Nordic region

So, what does this mean for the Nordic region? While Brexit presents challenges for the UK’s life sciences industry, it also creates opportunities for the Nordic region. As the UK’s closest neighbor and a hub for life sciences research and development, the Nordics are well-positioned to benefit from any potential opportunities arising from Brexit, if there indeed was competition. The Nordics have a strong track record in life sciences, with world-renowned research institutions and a thriving biotech sector.

Shorthose sums up the issue facing the UK, and how it will now face additional competition, highlighting, “The UK would have been a natural entry point into the EU because we had an educated workforce and access to the single market.”

As the UK’s relationship with the EU becomes increasingly complex, companies will be looking for alternative locations to set up operations, a supportive environment for life sciences companies, competitive tax rates, strong intellectual property protection, and access to world-class research institutions.”

Having a highly skilled workforce and a favorable business environment, and with a high level of English spoken throughout the Nordic region, there is certainly an advantage for attracting talent to the region. This could create jobs and stimulate economic growth, particularly in countries that have already established themselves as hubs for the industry. As the UK’s relationship with the EU becomes increasingly complex, companies will be looking for alternative locations to set up operations, a supportive environment for life sciences companies, competitive tax rates, strong intellectual property protection, and access to world-class research institutions.

 

 

Collaborations

The relationship doesn’t have to be solely about competition, however, and the Nordic region could also benefit from increased collaboration with the UK’s life sciences industry. The UK is a world leader in life sciences research and development, and the Nordic region could leverage this expertise to drive innovation and growth in its biotech sector.

“Nordic countries and companies are looking to invest in the UK and this may be because it is a different environment,” Shorthose suggests, adding, “We still have amazing universities. We still have amazing teaching hospitals and research scientists.”

By collaborating on research and development projects, the two regions could accelerate the discovery of new treatments and therapies, ultimately benefiting patients around the world. This is a sentiment echoed by Shorthose, who says, “It’s better for everyone if we have more cooperation.”

By partnering with UK companies and universities, Nordic firms could access new sources of funding and expertise, leading to the development of innovative products and therapies.”

Moreover, the Nordic region has a history of successful public-private partnerships, which have led to the development of new treatments and medical devices. By partnering with UK companies and universities, Nordic firms could access new sources of funding and expertise, leading to the development of innovative products and therapies.

“There’s money flowing around, and it might be private money instead. It might be a slightly different environment but it’s a good opportunity,” believes Shorthose. “The Nordic region must remain vigilant and prepared to take advantage of these opportunities.”

Overall, the potential impact of Brexit on the life sciences industry is complex and multifaceted. While there are undoubtedly challenges and uncertainties, there are also opportunities for the Nordic region to capitalize on, but also to continue to collaborate with the UK. By leveraging its strengths and collaborating with the UK’s life sciences industry, the region could emerge as a global leader in the sector, driving innovation and improving health outcomes for people around the world.

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