AstraZeneca sets out post-Brexit wish list for U.K. politicians

CG image of AstraZeneca's HQ
An artist's impression of the headquarters AstraZeneca is building in Cambridge, U.K.

AstraZeneca EVP Mene Pangalos has laid out how he wants the next government to support the United Kingdom’s life sciences sector through Brexit. The R&D leader’s wish list to U.K. politicians includes a “welcoming” environment for global talent and a local regulatory agency aligned with the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

Pangalos set out his vision for the U.K. life science sector in an interview with BBC Radio 4.

“What we want to see is a U.K. that is putting itself in a position to be a leader in the life sciences. [It means] investing more in healthcare, investing more in basic research, creating an environment where scientific and clinical talent from wherever it may come from can come into the U.K. in a welcoming way and it means having a regulatory body that is aligned with a major body such as the EMA,” Pangalos said.

The use of the word “welcoming” is notable. Since the Brexit vote, the ruling Conservative party has followed the British tabloid newspapers in making statements that have, by accident or design, made some immigrants feel less welcome and valued in the U.K.

In October, Amber Rudd, the home secretary, said foreign workers should not take jobs “British people should do.” Rudd also proposed to make it harder for companies to hire from overseas and force them to publish details of the proportion of “international” staff they employ. That same month, Prime Minister Theresa May said healthcare staff from overseas would remain in the U.K. for an “interim period” while more British doctors are trained. The U.K. healthcare system relies heavily on staff born outside of the country.

When coupled with the ruling party’s 100,000-a-year net migration target, frequent anti-immigration newspaper articles and a post-Brexit spike in hate crime, the comments painted a picture to some of a country that, at best, undervalues the contributions of migrants and, at worst, was turning its back on them. This is against the interests of AstraZeneca, which needs a system that makes it possible to hire from overseas and for the U.K. to be a country people want to make their home.

“Today, if I look at our U.K. workforce we have people from around 80 different non-U.K. nationalities. We have about 10% of our workforce that is of non-U.K. origin. Being able to recruit the very best talent wherever it is from is going to be what makes us globally competitive,” Pangalos said.

If, as looks likely, the Conservative party retains its net migration target and tightens its grip on power in the upcoming election, the U.K. will again commit to cutting the number of people who move to the country each year. However, the target has been in place for years without migration falling significantly, let alone to 100,000 people a year. Leaving the European Union will allow the U.K. to control migration from the 27 remaining member states. But, last year, migrants from these countries accounted for 45% of the 596,000 people who are estimated, potentially inaccurately, to have moved to the U.K. 

The British biotech sector is broadly optimistic it will continue to be able to recruit from overseas after Brexit, although the attractiveness of the country to foreign recruits—particularly given the effect of the weak pound on wages—is harder to predict.

Pangalos hopes the next government will work with the life sciences sector to ensure the U.K. is one of the best places to do research. This will entail sorting out the status of current and future migrants, while also addressing another big uncertainty created by Brexit: regulation. Pangalos set out his wishes in this area, too.

“With the EMA potentially moving out of the U.K., we need to have a regulatory body that is affiliated with an institution such as the European Medicines Agency, but [that] also takes the opportunity to create an environment where actually doing clinical trials, clinical development, adopting innovation is easy. And that I think is an opportunity post-Brexit,” Pangalos said.

The close-but-separate model proposed by Pangalos echoes that put forward by some government politicians, notably health secretary Jeremy Hunt. Speaking in January, Hunt said the U.K. is likely to leave the EMA but wanted the “closest possible regulatory equivalence.” That could mean the U.K. would automatically license drugs approved by the EMA.