U.K. hatches plan to attract R&D investment, as EMA exit likely

Westminster London
The Palace of Westminster, London

The U.K. is holding a series of meetings with the CEOs of top-10 pharma companies in a bid to understand how it can attract R&D investments. Ministers have hatched the plan to use the flux created by Brexit to reshape the U.K. as a more appealing location for R&D.

Since the U.K. voted to leave the European Union last year, the prospect of being cut off from the mainland’s regulatory network and scientific collaborations has created concerns drugmakers will leave the country. These fears still cast a shadow over the U.K.’s plans for its post-Brexit economy. But U.K. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is also trying to turn the uncertainty into an opportunity.

“I think ... Brexit will be a catalyst to do better. Because of Brexit, I've taken it upon myself to meet the chief executives of the pharma global top 10. I've met four. I should be meeting another five in the next month.

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“When you talk to these people and understand what their priorities are in terms of where they're going to invest their research capabilities, you find there are indeed things that we could do differently and do better. That's what I want to do,” Hunt told a health-focused political committee. Hunt is yet to provide details of what the U.K. will do lure Big Pharma R&D investment.

The loss of Big Pharma R&D sites is a sore point for the U.K., which has seen companies such as Novartis and Pfizer make cuts over the past decades. Some of the reasons for the cuts have more to do with the changing R&D strategies of global companies than conditions on the ground in the U.K.. And the losses of Big Pharma staff have been partly offset by growth at biotechs and CROs.

Yet, in the U.K.’s highly-charged political environment, some people have sought to pin the blame for the cuts on the EU. Speaking in the House of Commons earlier this month, pro-Brexit MP Julian Brazier claimed the much-maligned EU Clinical Trials Directive “destroyed much of the pharmaceutical industry in this country overnight, including Pfizer’s site in east Kent.”

Hunt is hoping Brexit, which provides the U.K. with something approaching a blank slate, can catalyze changes to the regulatory and research environments and in doing so attract Big Pharma back to the country.

The plan faces some headwinds. Globally, Big Pharma companies rely more on third parties and less on sizable in-house discovery sites for new candidates than they did in the past. And locally in the U.K., the focus on the opportunities of Brexit cannot hide the uncertainty and potential disruption it creates.

Hunt acknowledged some of these issues in his meeting with the health committee. Regulation is one area of uncertainty. Hunt wants to have the “closest possible relationship” between the U.K. regulator and the European Medicines Agency (EMA). This could mean the U.K. automatically licenses drugs approved by EMA—something that would stop the country getting access to drugs later than it does today—but equally it might not.

“This is all part of the negotiating process, so it's difficult to be more specific,” Hunt said.

Hunt was less equivocal about the likely post-Brexit home of EMA, which is currently based in London. Some U.K. politicians still hope to keep EMA and the 900 people it employs in London once Brexit is complete, but Hunt has a different, arguably more realistic, stance.

“The EMA is an EU institution. I think it's likely EU countries will want to move its headquarters outside the UK,” he said.

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