The UK has a huge amount to offer the life sciences sector. It combines globally renowned scientific research bases with a world leading NHS, which allows innovators to test and refine products at scale.
“Life science organisations of all sizes will continue to grow and thrive in the coming years, which means NHS patients will continue to be at the front of the queue for new treatments,” according to Jeremy Hunt in the official publication of the ‘Life Sciences Sector Deal’, announced in early December.
The key point for healthcare is in his last phrase; do the truisms of the first part automatically deliver the latter pledge? The ambition for patient benefits, in reality, seems to bear little relation to the actual content of the document.
A flurry of newsworthy investment deals announced in quick succession ensured that the deal gained significant press coverage. Hot on the heels of the Government’s new industrial strategy, it is a resounding recognition of pharma and medtech’s status as a true asset for Britain.
Industrial strength: Bell rings for innovation
The Life Sciences Sector Deal was pitched as a realisation of the recommendations from Sir John Bell’s life sciences industrial strategy.
It reflects the joint strategic vision of Government and industry for Britain to continue hosting world-leading medical research, and the discovery of innovative technologies and breakthrough treatments.
It is also about giving businesses a boost, creating jobs and advancing the UK economy. When measured against those latter aims, this sector deal is unquestionably a success, although the extent to which it delivers on the Bell review remains to be seen.
With the industrial strategy agenda very much ‘owned’ by the Prime Minister and the sector deals sitting squarely with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), a lot more thinking is required if these commitments are to translate into benefits for patients and the NHS.
Despite the deal being officially signed off by both the Secretaries of State at the BEIS and DH, it has no presence on the Department of Health website, and we’ve heard nothing from them or Jeremy Hunt – not so much as a tweet – on the subject.
Coverage of it is largely absent among typical health publications, with only the business pages covering the biggest deals, such as those with GSK and Merck. It is, however, presented as being good for patients; the deal’s foreword claims, ‘these investments…will also produce real benefits for patients – through allowing earlier diagnosis of conditions and speeding up access to new treatments.’
Bell’s proposals for building the strengths of the life sciences sector were organised into five key themes – science, growth, NHS, data and skills, and of these, it is the NHS that seems to have been largely overlooked.
Healthy scepticism is also required as to whether the data section in the deal offers any new solutions to some fundamental issues with patient information. The commitment to Digital Innovation Hubs and investment in the extension of the Genome Project at least sets out some practical ambition. But the paper falls well short of how UK-based R&D will facilitate better NHS access to new technologies and, given that there will surely be an expectation of some healthy returns on their investments, it may be that companies will need to look first to the global market.
Some might say that the Accelerated Access Review (AAR), and the Government’s recent response to it, is the missing piece of the jigsaw, and with the brief mention of the Accelerated Access Collaborative in the deal, it appears this policy intends to provide NHS patients with access to the fruits of this advanced research carried out in Britain.
Given the weaknesses of the proposed Accelerated Access Pathway, evident in the impact assessment published last month, the idea that the sector deal may depend wholly on the AAR to ensure a beneficial impact for patients is concerning. With so little health profile given to a cross-departmental document which is, it seems, entirely accountable to BEIS, it is likely that the healthcare aspect will be further diluted in the face of BEIS’s differing agenda.
A key criteria of the entire industrial strategy was to embrace the UK as a whole, and this sector deal is at pains to demonstrate this through the geographic spread of various R&D sites. One could argue, however, that for the UK as a whole to really benefit, it would have to elaborate on how R&D infrastructure translates directly into patient benefit. There is unfortunately little by way of explanation or new initiatives that explain how this will be so.
Progress in the overall governance arrangements will be key; which stakeholders will be represented on the deal’s Implementation Board for its first meeting, in early 2018, will determine the likelihood of success, and whether it will continue to be skewed so heavily towards a business agenda over and above healthcare.
As such, there is a massive amount of work to be done to convert commitments for a strengthened research environment into opportunities that ensure industry energy and investment become widely accessible to patients in the coming years.
The Government will inevitably lay itself open to criticism of a big business, elitist agenda if UK patients fail to find themselves at the front of the queue when cutting edge UK science is converted into medicine.
Claudia is a Director at Decideum. Go to decideum.com