This article is part of our special report Biotechnology in Europe.
Controls on EU immigration played a key role in the Brexit vote. However, the UK government now says that it wants to protect the free movement of researchers and talent, which are crucial for the life sciences sector. euractiv.com reports from Lyon.
Speaking at Biovision 2017- The World Life Sciences Forum in Lyon, stakeholders discussed possible post-Brexit scenarios and, particularly, their impact on health.
All agreed that the main priority was to avoid disruptions in healthcare, which could have a wider impact on patients, both in the UK and the EU-27. They also agreed that certainty and “pragmatic solutions” are needed.
Life sciences in the UK
Emily Hamblin, a representative of the UK government and regional manager of the UK Science and Innovation Network for Western Europe, noted that life sciences are a hugely important sector in her country.
Roughly one in four of the most popular prescription medicines in the world are developed in the UK and 17 of the top 20 pharmaceutical companies have sites there.
For Hamblin, a key issue for the UK is to maintain its position as a place for innovators and investors.
She stressed that the priority should be to achieve an ambitious free trade agreement, in order to provide as much certainty as possible in the run-up to the Brexit.
“The UK government is currently developing a new industrial strategy […] science, innovation and research are at the heart of this strategy,” she said, adding that the government had decided to invest an additional 4.7 billion pounds in research and development.
“This is the biggest investment for 40 years and demonstrates the importance of the sector for the UK.”
Research and migration
However, access to EU researchers and “talents” after the Brexit seems to be a hot topic, seeing as controlling immigration from the EU was one of the central demands of the Brexit campaign.
Currently, one in six researchers in the UK are EU citizens and the UK government wants to keep access to that talent.
“I want to be very clear: […] it’s recognised that it’s a priority and we want to protect that. But at this point, I cannot make any hypothesis about how we are going to do that,” Hamblin noted.
She acknowledged that having control over immigration from the EU was one of the key issues of the Brexit referendum but she underlined that access to talent and the freedom of movement is “essential for research and our businesses, it’s really a key”.
Another key issue is what will happen with the ongoing EU-funded programmes, which will end after Brexit. Hamblin said, “The UK has guaranteed funding through competitive European funding sources like Horizon 2020, so that the funding awarded for the best projects is guaranteed for the life of those projects. Even if the projects end after the day we leave the EU, which is a recognition of our need for certainty.”
She did, however, dodge EURACTIV’s question on whether the UK government had calculated the financial cost of “losing” the European Medicines Agency.
Regulation close to the EU
Virginia Acha, Executive director of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, explained that for her sector the development of medicines should not be seen as a “wait and see” question and emphasised the need for “practical and pragmatic planning from now”.
“We are looking for as a close line to the EU regulation as we can arrive at. […] The partnership with Europe has been productive,” she said, stressing that the main priority is to ensure that the UK will have no problem in delivering medicines the day after it leaves the bloc.
“We should not have any patients who cannot get access to the medicines they need. […] That’s our primary goal,” she said, adding that the short timeframe for planning is the “common enemy”.
She stressed that after the Brexit vote, regulation has suddenly become a “sexy discussion” and the government is very focused on the importance of it.
Regarding the medicines registration, she warned that Brussels and London cannot find a way to resolve this it would have an impact not just on British but also EU patients.
She said that the current regulatory approach already provides work-sharing arrangements (i.e. inspection work) across the EU regulators as part of the broader EU network.
“There is every opportunity to think about what these work-sharing arrangements could be in the future, to at least allow both Europe and the UK to continue benefiting from that network value,” she said.
Andrew Packman, head of the UK pharmaceutical and life sciences business at PricewaterhouseCoopers, noted it was important for the industry to have clarity.
He said that regulation was particularly important but insisted that there were clear mutual interests in the EU and UK for a pragmatic solution to the issues of patient benefits.
“It is reasonable to be optimistic that a sensible approach will be reached soon and quickly,” he said. He emphasised that Brexit did not have to be the most significant thing in the world.
According to Packman, Brexit may even give the UK the opportunity to respond more quickly to a changing world. “Clearly, the industry needs the ability to plan for the very long term and there are a number of factors […] Our ability in the West to compete with Asia, the UK is likely to be the place to come to for Americans, for people from the Far East to approach Europe,” he said.
Referring to the advantages the EU would gain after Brexit, he said the bloc now had a real opportunity for closer integration, to promote its agenda more quickly and support of the euro.
But he insisted that there were more important things than Brexit.
“Frankly, what is going on in the US with the industry is much more important. If Trump brings in the US tax reform in the way he has expected that will have an enormous impact on the industry in Europe,” he noted.