Covid has given UK biotech a lesson — and a legacy

The writer was chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce and is managing partner of SV Health Investors

The emergence of a new coronavirus variant, Omicron, is an advent gift no one wants. But we are not facing it unarmed.

Unlike last Christmas, we now have a well-advanced vaccine and booster programme in the UK. A recent study published in The Lancet shows that the third vaccine gives a substantial immunity boost, hugely increasing antibody levels. If everyone comes forward, then even if Omicron proves highly transmissible, people should be protected against severe disease.

We are in this strong position because the government set up the Vaccine Taskforce and provided funding for industry to rapidly develop vaccines. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency moved mountains to gain swift regulatory approval. Volunteers from the new 500,0000-strong NHS digital database joined clinical trials at record speed.

Covid has taken a terrible toll but has given us much to be proud of: not only the heroism of frontline workers but also a new entrepreneurial drive and collaboration among academics, investors, public health, big pharma and innovative small companies in the race for a vaccine.

The resulting success is the first of many breakthroughs in biomedicine: innovative drugs and treatments we develop in the UK will have a global benefit. I only have to look at SV Health Investors for evidence of how biotech is soaring. Our UK-based biotech companies have raised a remarkable $900m this year from international investors, underlining the country’s status as a biotech powerhouse.

Last week, global bioscience leaders gathered at the SV annual forum at the Francis Crick Institute: the chief executives, R&D and commercial leaders of big pharmaceutical companies along with innovators, academics, and regulators. The talk was of speed, collaboration and mutual support, big and small businesses, private sector and public health working together.

Pharmaceutical giants are eagerly offering their resources to small companies. Scientists are recognising that they need industrial scale and expertise to get laboratory breakthroughs from bench to bedside. Such collaboration will enable us to tackle other health crises, from cancer to heart disease, obesity and dementia.

Investment is not simply cherry-picking existing companies for profit. Good venture capitalism builds companies from the bottom up and, in the case of biotech, develops medicines that deliver public good along with profit.

The UK is in an excellent position. By being able to list on public exchanges such as the Nasdaq directly, our biotechs can now access global capital that will drive global scale innovation. The MHRA is highly-respected internationally, which accelerates the process of getting global approval for new drugs. And with electronic NHS health records of 65m people, we have a population-scale digital database that gives us a unique ability to evaluate the effectiveness of medicines.

The success of the Covid vaccines — and of new drugs to treat those who do become ill — shows what we can achieve in the right conditions. Science and industry must now collaborate to make the UK the best place to trial and test products, using new technology to get diagnosis and treatment right first time, underpinned by an ever-improving genomic and health data infrastructure.

Politicians must continue to fund the world-class science and clinical research capabilities that have proved so key. Innovation does not come from government, but from the private sector. Government can spur the process by proving a reliable partner and by supporting companies that produce new medicines, creating jobs and manufacturing capacity.

Covid is not going away. But by investing to protect ourselves against this and future threats, we can turn its legacy into something positive.


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