Transforming the UK into a life sciences superpower

The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock spoke at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) annual conference.

Matt Hancock

Thank you Richard, and I appreciate the opportunity to have this discussion. I’ve just got back from the Science Museum, where I’ve had my first jab.

And the Queen was right – it doesn’t hurt a bit.

I had Professor Van-Tam vaccinating me, which was a real honour. For me, having that in the Science Museum just underlined the significance of science and the life sciences. And having it from JVT, who has obviously played such an important role in this vaccine effort, it has been wonderful. And it really crystallised for me the job the life sciences have done over this past year, and, you know, how as an industry we moved with such extraordinary speed and helped to build the defences, in what effectively has been a race against time to save lives, that race is still on.

We’ve seen some incredible results.

One year ago, the number of people we could test for COVID in a day stood in 5 figures. Last month, we tested nearly 2 million people in a single day. That is because of advances in the diagnostics industry.

Of course, back then we didn’t have treatments for COVID, so we found them – including for instance dexamethasone. And now of course we’re looking for more. And the estimate is the dexamethasone, the discovery of dexamethasone, has an impact on mortality, it has saved up to a million lives globally.

Before the pandemic, of course, we didn’t make many vaccines in this country. Now we’re manufacturing millions.

And we’ve achieved in months what usually takes years.

Some of it we may never have achieved had it not been for the extraordinary circumstances that we’ve faced.

And from what we started with, what we had at the start of this, a combination of elite research institutions, innovative regulation, pro-innovation regulation, and of course NHS and the NHS data, which has been such a powerful package. And one of the things I wanted to talk about today.

It’s a real tribute to our life sciences sector, I think, and to members of the ABPI, and it’s a clear signal of what we can do, if we work together.

I am incredibly proud to join the 34 million people who have had the jab now, and we’re getting more data that shows our vaccines are really reducing people’s chances of catching COVID, and we’re constantly finding out even more about the layers of protection that the vaccines are giving us.

But despite this good news, we still face some real challenges right now. Around the world, there were more cases of COVID last week than any other week.

But vaccines are not the only hope in this fight – we can also now see how important antivirals can be. And I just want to put antivirals on the agenda to this group, and this audience, because I think that they are very, very important for the future of how we handle this pandemic.

First, they can treat people early, to stop mild disease becoming more serious.

And secondly, as a prophylactic – as a precautionary measure – in settings where someone’s tested positive.

So we’re absolutely determined to do more and learn from what we’ve achieved in the last year and a half on vaccines. With antivirals are the next frontier.

We’ve just launched our antivirals taskforce – to do this year with antivirals what we did last year with vaccines.

And the mission of that taskforce is to search for the most promising new drugs and speed up their development and manufacture here in the UK and have them ready for deployment this year.

And we need to get to a world where we take our tests at home, and if you test positive, you take your antivirals at home.

That is the next national mission – and I’m looking forward to working with a great many of you on it.

We’ve learned a huge amount this last year – and we’ve learned a lot about how to make things happen. It’s one of the things I want to address today. How we’ve managed to accelerate things, that often happens in a crisis, but crucially, we’ve got to hold on to those things and translate the lessons we’ve learned, especially from the things that have gone well – the discovery of dexamethasone, our vaccines project.

I name those 2 as the top 2 in this space, but there are many more. And we need to use these lessons, right across the board, not just in response to COVID, but more broadly too.

And I just think it’s worth us all dwelling for a moment on the fact that the public has never been more engaged in health research – never has the public been more engaged about health research – so let’s harness this enthusiasm.

Tackling COVID has been a global mission – but there are so many other noble missions that still lie ahead. I am sure you can think of those that you are most focused on.

Tackling cancer. Treatments for dementia. Preventing heart disease. So much more.

Now, over the last year, the NIHR and their ‘restart framework’ has helped support the recruitment of nearly a quarter of a million participants to non-urgent public health studies.

And although it’s heartening that three quarters of commercial trials that had been paused have now re-opened, we’ve got to go further to recover non-COVID research.

And the NIHR’s Clinical Research Network is providing targeted support for the recovery of studies that they – together with you – have identified as both vital and urgent. And I’m very grateful to ABPI and your membership for your instrumental role in this approach.

And just looking ahead, that approach has got to be about more than just recovery.

I think it’s very moving to hear the words of Stephen Hawking, he said that the true meaning of “intelligence is the ability to adapt to change”.

So it’s no longer about getting us back to where we were – it’s about charting a new and better course, where we learn the lessons of the pandemic, and build back better, to transform the UK into a life sciences superpower. That is what we can do. I know it’s an ambition you all share.

Under the banner of the 2017 life sciences strategy, which feels an age ago now, we’ve achieved a great deal together.

We have got some great things to build on.

The best life sciences though, just as you were saying, come from the collaboration of the holy trinity: of government, academia and industry.

There are things that we must do, and by government I mean in the broadest sense, including the NHS, here are things that you must do. And we must do these things together.

Today, I want to address 3 things of each – 3 things that we need to do, 3 things that you need to do, and then drill down into them.

But really, in all cases, we need to do them together.

First, on our side of the fence.

How do we turn these ambitions into actions?

The first thing I want to touch on is regulation and trial design. We have to take a hard look at our rules and regulations.

They are of course the cornerstone of sector, practice, and getting new products into use with patients, but left unchecked, regulations can outgrow their original purpose and stifle innovation.

Now, one of the quiet but very significant success stories of the pandemic has been the MHRA, and that’s because they have taken a culture and approach of focusing on safety, not bureaucracy, not simply taking step A then step B, then step C, because those are the steps that they’ve always taken, but running steps, A, B and C and D and E for that matter, concurrently at the same time.

The result of this has been really clear for the whole world to see, because we were the first in the world to license a safe and effective clinically authorised vaccine, and we were quick out of the starting blocks with the recovery trial that identified dexamethasone and other treatments.

And in my view, the MHRA has proved themselves to be one of the finest medical regulators in the world.

But we can’t rest on our laurels, even during the pandemic, we legislated for the medicines and medical devices Bill, something we’re able to do now outside the EU, and that will allow us to build a regulatory system over time, that is one of the most effective in the world.

That’s one of the most ready innovations in data and AI, advanced therapies, and technologies that don’t yet exist and none of us have yet dreamed of.

And it’s at the heart of the bold vision we published last month for the future of UK clinical research delivery.

The goal here is a country and a sector that’s ready to embrace the breakthrough technologies that can help us tackle some of the most pressing Population Health burdens in the future, and save and improve people’s lives.

And for me, thinking about the purpose of this. The clue is in the name, life sciences are about saving and improving lives.

An important part of that is to have trial designs that are not only, innovative, but interoperable across borders, too.

And throughout the pandemic, we’ve been stung, when clinical trials aren’t designed with set standards from the start, meaning that it takes longer to translate the data, and longer to get the results that we have so desperately needed, changing that is something that I’ve put at the heart of our G7 presidency, because getting it right means that we’ll be able to get treatments out faster, and save more lives.

And we’ve seen that for instance, on the link to the NHS through the accelerated access collaborative and through the some of the landmark commercial deals signed between the NHS and industry, like the deal signed with Novartis for Inclisiran, for instance which is incredibly impressive dynamic deal, and we’re becoming faster and better at getting new treatments and technologies into the hands of patients or clinicians in the NHS who need them.

I just want to pause at this point, in particular to address a critical point that we all need to think about. Because when it comes to clinical trials, I also want us to think about women’s health.

We recently launched the first ever Women’s Health Strategy – which aims to put an end to the ‘male by default’ culture, which I think has been around for far too long. And unbelievably still exists in some parts of what we do.

Doing this involves changing how we spend our money, where our research goes and which conditions we put the most focus into.

It means explicitly designing any clinical trial to be equal amongst men and women.

I find it astonishing that it still doesn’t always happen today.

We need to listen to women’s voices – and act on what we hear, so the life sciences are there for everyone.

So that’s the first thing, research and clinical research and regulation, how it;s regulated, making sure that it is dynamic, modern, fit for purpose, where we have a big role to keep constantly making sure that we regulate for science and safety, and not for bureaucracy.

The second thing I’m determined to get right is investment.

So, despite the strong pipeline of SMEs spinning out of some of our world class science base here in the UK, it is still hard to access the late-stage capital these companies need to grow and turn into world-beaters.

This is something our Life Sciences Investment Programme is intended to change, working again in partnership with you, with sovereign investors, and with the private sector, to deepen our investment ecosystem and support homegrown companies and homegrown talent.

This is really incredibly important to me. It’s noticeable, for instance, going back to the vaccines programme, that many of the vaccines that are successful, were developed outside of the big pharma companies, and then partnered with the big, more established companies, in order to get to manufacturing scale and deployment capability. Really, really noticeable.

And we’re already attracting some serious interest, including an 800 million investment from the Mubadala Investment Company, and I’m confident that there’ll be many more.

I’m excited about what British life sciences companies can achieve, but we’ve got to lean in to unlock these new pools of growth capital and there’s a lot more to do on that front.

The third thing is incredibly important to touch on, is skills.

Clearly the greatest investment we can make is in people, we’ve got to drive up more children taking up STEM subjects, that drive is working.

And we’ve seen an unprecedented growth in the number of students going for subjects like computer science, engineering, chemistry, physics, biology, we’ve seen a 400% increase in students wanting to study AI at university.

We’re getting ahead of this, we have a life sciences 2030 skills strategy, and am absolutely determined that we stay ahead on this, we must maintain this focus on skill shortages where we see them.

And again, keep working together to find solutions, whether that’s the uptake of apprenticeships in life sciences, or at the university of postgraduate level.

This is the level of foresight and planning that we need, because you don’t become a superpower in life sciences by accident, and you can’t do it without the people who are the absolute bedrock of getting this right.

So, these are the areas that were working in partnership, where we’re taking the lead on regulations on investment, on skills.

But there are also the areas where industry can lead, and I just want to focus on 3 of these.

And I think, I think these are incredibly important. Again we’ve got to work in partnership and together, but I just want to touch on three.

First, manufacturing, and the location of manufacturing.

We do some fantastic things here in the UK, we make surgical robots in Cambridge and hip replacements in Leeds and cancer medicines in Macclesfield.

But there’s no question that when it comes to things like manufacturing medicines and vaccines on a commercial scale, we have fallen behind.

Far too many British breakthroughs are then being manufactured elsewhere and imported back for UK patients.

There was a dominant idea in government, that it didn’t matter where manufacturing took place, but I believe that is wrong, manufacturing, medicines and medical devices, bring jobs.

And crucially, bring the whole process closer to patients and closer to research.

So we’re changing that old way of thinking, COVID-19 has revealed how much our resilience to future emergencies really depends on our homegrown manufacturing capability.

You know, we’ve now got “fill and finish” for the Oxford jab in Wrexham, we’ve got the vaccines being made on Teesside and in Livingston.

There’s much more to come on this agenda, much, much more to come.

We prove that we can build a manufacturing base in areas that we didn’t have, and we proved, we can do it quickly we’ve done this on vaccines, we’re doing it in diagnostics, we’ve committed 300 million to secure and scale up manufacturing capabilities here at home, including longer-term bets on some of the state of the art technology, we’re building our Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult Manufacturing Innovation Centre in Stevenage – which helps bring innovation, innovative cell and gene therapies to market.

We’ve got our vaccines manufacturing and innovation centre in Oxfordshire on the way.

And when these are complete, they’ll have the capacity to produce vaccines, on a scale for the entire UK population and to be able to export to other parts of the world, we’re just getting started on this, we are changing the attitude, we’re changing the approach, and we are leaning in.

And the way to think about it is this.

The UK is big enough, and has the capability enough, to be globally leading, but we’re also small enough to be joined up in a really good ecosystem.

And we need to take a global approach here, there are some areas of the world where they consider the domestic market is big enough – that isn’t true.

The NHS is a big buyer, one of the biggest, if not the biggest in the world. But we know that we need to take a global approach.

And for me, I think that makes the perfect combination for investment in the life sciences.

And my message to would-be investors in UK life sciences is this.

Nowhere in the world, will you find a government that is more committed to you, and nowhere will you find a government more committed to free trade and contract law. The life sciences industry is global, by nature, it depends on a huge collaboration, internationally, on international supply chains, maybe more than any other industry.

A typical vaccine contains 200 components from 80 companies, and 60 countries, and it’s the same for many therapeutics and devices.

In Britain, we celebrate that huge collaboration that stands behind the success of all life sciences sector. We cherish the values of openness of scientific progress that that represents.

So yes, of course, I recognise the huge pressure on trade and on supply chains in times of emergency, and I recognise some of the political pressures, of course I do.

But we know, and I believe fundamentally that the best way to protect all our supply chains is not protectionism, it’s openness, we must keep that huge collaboration going, keep goods and services flowing.

So I want to make crystal clear, Britain’s unshakeable commitment to free trade and contract law, a covenant on life sciences, if you like, that gives those who want to invest and build their businesses in the UK, the assurance they need that you can export the medicines, made here to your destination market.

We want to match this commitment with powerful incentives, we’ve established the new Medicines and Diagnostics Manufacturing Transformation Fund as a model for how we can do this, offering capital grants to encourage manufacturing, including large-scale manufacturing, and my mission, our mission, not just to build back the manufacturing, but to build back better.

Now I’m asking our Life Sciences Council to lead on this important work. And I want us to make sure our offer is so good, that it would be an impossible choice, not to invest and locate in the UK.

So that’s the first thing.

And I think this culture of working together, and openness, so that when you produce here, of course we’ll buy if it’s good, but you can export to anywhere in the world.

This is a great moment to be taking this approach, because I think the life sciences are more visible and more valued than ever before by the public, and at the same moment, the technology is more powerful than ever before.

So that brings me to the penultimate point I want to make. I want to focus on just one technology, which is incredibly important, where we need to drive things forward.

And you need to take a lead. Fast and cheap sequencing is turning healthcare on its head.

Let me tell you about a little girl called Jessica.

She had trouble walking, she suffered epileptic fits, her parents did everything they could to find out what was wrong, going from consultant to consultant from scan to scan.

Jessica was just 4 years old, and they couldn’t find out what was wrong.

Now not only was this hugely costly to the NHS, but it was distressing for everyone involved.

But when Jessica signed up to the 100,000 Genomes Project, all that changed. One sequence later, they found she had Glut One Deficiency Syndrome.

It put an end to her diagnostic odyssey, it put her on the path to tailored treatment.

In these cases of rare diseases, a typical diagnostic odyssey takes 4 to 7 years.

But genomics is not just for tackling this huge problem in rare diseases.

We’re making genomic sequencing a routine part of everyday diagnosis and treatment, and the UK again is uniquely placed.

The NHS has the scale and the systems to make it happen.

Turning tests around more quickly, prescribing precision medicine, giving doctors the tools to make better clinical decisions.

So we’ll be backing genomics to the hilt.

From our side, we need you.

First, I’ve asked the Medical Research Council to develop a proposal for a UK Functional Genomics Initiative, through this initiative we want to make the UK a world leader in new approaches to understanding how genetic changes cause disease, and through that, the validation of drugs targets, later this year we’ll be launching our genome UK Implementation Plan.

And I can confirm that we’re making further investments in some of Genomics England’s most cutting-edge projects, including the sequencing of newborns, in addressing the underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in genomic datasets, and funding next generation approaches to cancer diagnosis.

Genomics is at the cutting edge, it’s helped save lives in this pandemic.

And we in the UK are undisputed world leaders, and we’re going to keep on leading.

Government, industry and academia. That Holy Trinity, working together.

The very last point I want to make, is to absolutely underscore something that we all know, and has been proved yet again during this crisis, but still needs work to get the most out of – the importance of high quality integrated properly architectured data.

Across the health and care system, people are using data more fluently and more effectively than ever before.

Never more so than in clinical trials, again the recovery trial, allowed us to show what was possible.

I want us to deliver on our vision to create the most advanced and data-enabled clinical research environment in the world, where initiatives like NHS DigiTrials have shown the way forward, but there’s much, much more to do.

As well as the work internationally at the G7 level that I mentioned, today I’m proud to set out the next steps with a 20 million investment in the new data- driven Find, Recruit, and Follow-Up service for clinical trials.

The gift we have here of the NHS in this country, means the opportunity to use data to save lives better than anywhere else, but that gift, if you allow me to stretch the analogy, that gift is not yet fully unwrapped.

We have to work hard together to make best use of this gift to save lives.

I’m determined to make it quicker and easier to set up and deliver the high power clinical trials we need, more than that, the trials will be better with R&D ready data, to strengthen their power to increase diversity of participants.

And so, bring medicines to market safer and faster, from cancer to cardiovascular, to every disease known to mankind. Taken together, all this means better research, better treatment, better clinical decision making, and more lives saved, and lives improved, that is the mission of the life sciences.

So, in closing, today I want to extend my gratitude to all of you, you’ve achieved some amazing things, which means that today we’re running ground-breaking clinical trials, we are treating COVID, we’re vaccinating our way out of this pandemic including me this morning.

This has all been possible because of that Holy Trinity of government, academia and industry coming together to meet the challenges that we collectively share.

But in my view, the best way for us to show that gratitude is to help you to do more, to take these steps, take them together and meet the challenges of the future.

When we do that, we won’t just recover from this pandemic, but we’ll build back better. And together, working together, using the momentum that the pandemic has required, using the energy that it’s given the sector, using the enthusiasm that the British public have demonstrated for the scientific work that you’ve done, and the work to translate that science into reality.

That is how we’re going to transform the UK, into a life sciences superpower, and I’m really excited about working with you to make it happen.

Published 29 April 2021