life sciences

Covid-19: A catalyst or a diversion for the life sciences sector?

Life sciences is a key sector in the UK with over 5,000 companies operating in the country, writes Ian Oliver, head of life sciences, BDO

Quality complements quantity, with all the top 20 global pharmaceutical and top 30 medical technology companies having a presence here¹.

Locally, the sector plays a pivotal role, employing thousands of people, with the region being home to a number of evolving clusters, including Harwell, Milton Park, Oxford Science Park, and the Thames Valley Science Park.

A growing and thriving sector supported by the Government

In 2019 there were more than 70 companies developing advanced therapy medicinal products, 25 manufacturing facilities and three unicorn companies that each reached over $1 billion in value in the UK². This success has been supported by the Government with its Life Sciences Strategy which was launched in 2011, since which, over £7.5b of inward investment has been secured³.

The Thames Valley life sciences community has had an influential role in the development of this with both the Life Sciences Industrial Strategy and the latest Life Sciences Sector Deal, being authored/co-authored by Professor Sir John Bell from the University of Oxford.

Leading the fight against Covid-19 but at what cost?

By mid-May 2020, there were more than 1,000 clinical trials ongoing with over 150 treatments being tested in relation to Covid-19⁴. This shouldn’t come as a surprise as the number of clinical trials ongoing in the UK grew 37% between 2018 and 2019².

However, a UCL study found that the need for clinicians to be on the frontline at the peak of Covid-19, resulted in clinical research being reduced by up to 87% in England. There have also been enormous disruptive effects on all biomedical research that is not directly related to Covid-19.

Fulfilling its purpose

The Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre (VMIC), based at Harwell, was established to promote, develop and accelerate the growth of the UK vaccine industry. It plans to bridge the gap between research and expertise in development and manufacturing so that new vaccine products can be produced as quickly as possible.

One of its core objectives is to increase inward investment by demonstrating the attractiveness of the UK as the place to carry out this work. What better example to showcase this, than supporting the fight against Covid-19.

VMIC is working closely with Oxford Biomedica to

¹ Department for International Trade ² UK BioIndustry Association ³ Thames Valley UK ⁴ Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry


provide immediate manufacturing capability prior to the completion of VMIC’s facilities at Harwell. This work is supported by other companies in the region which are developing potential Covid-19 vaccines (such as Oxford Vacmedix and Scancell), diagnostic tests (including Oxford Immunotec), and therapeutics to counteract Covid-19 symptoms (such as Synairgen).

The fruits of Oxford University and Astra Zeneca’s labours during 2020 generated approval of its Covid-19 vaccine by the UK medicines regulator at the end of December. The race is currently on to vaccinate the higher-risk members of the UK population, against the backdrop of national lockdowns and the highest levels of Covid cases and hospitalisations since the pandemic began. The speed of vaccine development was unprecedented and regulatory approval was particularly timely.

Continue on or take a new path?

It’s becoming clear that the sector is generally progressing its original core product developments and augmenting these with specific Covid developments. The second wave, and related workforce restrictions across the UK and further afield, could result in continued delays in testing of non-Covid drugs and devices in patients.

It’s also to be seen whether new opportunities arise due to a greater understanding and appreciation of the sector. However, with the public and investor community now having seen positive evidence of successful local and global life sciences capabilities, we’re seeing a greater interest in investing in the life sciences industry, by governments and the private sector, which should act as a catalyst for, and an accelerator of, future successful product development, once the current Covid impact has passed.

For further information on how BDO can support your business, contact:

Ian Oliver

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