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Carpe diem

Pharma must make the most of its opportunity to present an industry action plan to government

Dr Richard Barker, director general of the ABPIThe business of life sciences has long complained that the many government actions affecting it are not 'joined up' – higher education policies do not deliver the skills needed for planned bioscience expansion, the investment climate is polluted by untimely PPRS renegotiations, and the NHS wants to become more innovative, but NICE measures innovation in cold cost-effectiveness alone.

Well, we now have the chance to change this. At a meeting hosted by the Prime Minister on January 27, ministers from key government departments were present to decide on a bold agenda with industry that will drive joint working over the coming months.

How did the meeting come about?
The ABPI president and I wrote to Gordon Brown late last year, asking for just such a discussion. No 10 created an invitation list of CEOs from companies large and small, global and British, and agreed that they would co-ordinate a response across government to the proposals we would make.

Andrew Witty of GSK led the delegation, alongside David Brennan from Astra Zeneca and senior executives from a wide range of companies including Amgen, Lilly, Novartis, sanofi-aventis, BTG and Antisoma, plus the leaders of the ABPI and the BIA.

We talked about three main pillars of a future life sciences strategy, ie: making the NHS truly an innovation engine; rejuvenating the UK's ability to turn bioscience into products and creating new incentives and opportunities for advanced manufacturing - all key industry agenda items over the past few years.

Government seemed ready to listen, realising that our sector is one of the few knowledge-based UK industries with the potential to emerge strongly from the recession. Of course, action is required on all the areas we discussed, if the UK is to secure a lead role amid the radical restructuring underway in our sector.

The good news, from government's perspective, is that the industry is not demanding a huge cash influx. There are financial problems, especially for the small venture-backed companies on which innovation increasingly depends, but a combination of incentives and concessions across the value chain could revolutionise the formation of life sciences clusters around our universities, help translate bioscience breakthroughs into new medicines, make the NHS attractive again as a location for global clinical trials and overcome the tax disadvantages that stand in the way of the UK building manufacturing capacity for next generation treatments, be they chemical drugs, biomolecules or cells.

The decision to ask Sir Ian Kennedy to undertake an independent review of how NICE values new technologies is particularly welcome at this important time. NICE is still seen by companies around the world as a barrier to researching and launching new medicines here. Hopefully, through energetic inputs from clinicians, patients and researchers, we can address this long-standing issue.

The Prime Minister announced two key ways to move the strategy forward. Firstly, he has created a new Office of Life Sciences under Lord Drayson. Paul Drayson is the Science and Innovation Minister but, importantly, also an ex-CEO from the sector with a passion to make a difference to UK competitiveness. Secondly, he announced a revamping of the Ministerial Industry Strategy Group, which will now be chaired by Alan Johnson, with Peter Mandelson alongside. These are important signals that government means business and intends to focus on real decisions, not just more documents.

The challenge is to come back to the PM with an action plan by the autumn that will make a tangible difference to our future. The next MISG is scheduled for June, and our goal is to make real progress by then.

Last month I wrote about the four new imperatives that industry is pursuing through the ABPI – trust, innovation, value and access. If we add to this the funding efforts that are vitally important to the SMEs, we have a 5-point agenda for the sector for the year ahead. We will be drawing on industry's best people and thinking to push this agenda ahead.

The Author
Dr Richard Barker is director general of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry

16th March 2009

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