Ivan McKee MSP: How the Scottish Government’s efforts offer support to the life sciences industry

Scotland has a distinguished history of innovation and is now home to one of the most vibrant life sciences sectors in the world. Many world-leading companies and research institutions are based here and life sciences make a substantial contribution to Scotland’s economy.
Ivan McKee MSP. Picture: John DevlinIvan McKee MSP. Picture: John Devlin
Ivan McKee MSP. Picture: John Devlin

The sector employs more than 40,000 people and has steadily grown in recent years, with turnover growing from£4.5 billion in 2014 to £6.6bn in 2018. Scotland is on track to meet our ambition to increase sector turnover to £8bn by 2025.

This strong base allowed the industry to be in the forefront of Scotland’s Covid response. Not only has the pandemic claimed many lives, it has also tested many aspects of our society, including our health service, education system and economy.

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Addressing it has required a national collective response. As well as the heroics of NHS workers and efforts of millions of citizens, thousands of businesses repurposed activities and workplace environments while remaining flexible to meet business needs and reskill staff.

Not only did Scotland’s life sciences sector deal with these demands, it also made a substantial contribution to the overall pandemic fight, with excellent collaborative working between colleagues in the NHS, our economic development agencies, the Scottish Manufacturing Advisory Service, Life Sciences Scotland, and other trade organisations.

Underpinning our work was an early focus on strengthening supply chains across the country, including at the purpose-built life sciences building in Inverness where companies including ODx Innovations set up clinical testing and diagnostics, and Aseptium and 4c Engineering collaborated to produce various forms of essential PPE. The new, streamlined processes have provided the starting point for new initiatives including the Supply Chains Development Programme.

The gains made here will be crucial in ensuring the many innovative products being developed in Scotland have a clear and speedy route to market when ready.

Elsewhere, the sector’s response focused on three key areas: testing supply; repurposing drugs and vaccine development; and vaccine supply chain.

Over this period, Scotland has seen its testing capacity increase enormously. In March 2020, we worked to secure enough supply and capacity to undertake 30,000 tests a week. As Test and Protect scaled up, we reached the ability for 65,000 tests to be carried out each day for Scotland.

ThermoFisher Scientific has been a key partner in NHS testing at the Glasgow University Lighthouse Laboratory. Other partners include BioAscent and BioClavis, Dundee University and the Beatson Institute.

The Moredun Research Institute has been working with Scotland’s Rural College to support the NHS by providing extra capacity for vital testing of samples within their laboratory facilities at Pentlands Science Park in Midlothian.

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Elsewhere, the industry worked rapidly to repurpose drugs and treatments to help fight the emerging virus. Novabiotics in Aberdeen tested one of its antibiotic drugs on Covid patients with secondary lung infections and Glasgow-based TC BioPharm progressed to phase two and three trials in patients of an exciting potential treatment to boost the immune system.

ILC Therapeutics and Lamellar Biomedical, both based in BioCity in Newhouse, are working with partners on how existing treatments can be repurposed to prevent and treat Covid-induced acute respiratory distress syndrome.

There are many others, such as Exscientia – a spinout company of the University of Dundee and part of the CARE (Corona Accelerated R&D in Europe) consortium – which is using artificial intelligence to accelerate the pre-clinical phase of drug discovery. GlaxoSmithKline in Scotland produced additional stocks of salbutamol for inhalers in Covid hubs and assessment centres.

Of all of the pandemic achievements of the life sciences sector globally, the rapid development of vaccines has been the most impressive. Many Scottish companies are involved in vaccine development, including Valneva in Livingston, whose candidate is in the final stages of promising clinical trials.

Scotland has also had a major role to play in wider vaccine development, with the sector involved in such areas such as providing tissue samples; pharma support services and pre-clinical trials.

The pandemic has also accelerated changes in the way healthcare is delivered in Scotland, a crucial area of growth for the sector. The increasing use of technology, particularly digital and data, has already transformed some services. Our recently refreshed Digital Health and Care Strategy outlines the importance of digital technology and use of patient data, and the advances in artificial intelligence and development of mobile apps have clear ongoing benefits.

As a mark of how far we have come, this summer, more than one million health and care service appointments were delivered virtually.

It’s clear the sector has made a significant contribution to the fight against Covid. However, one of the key challenges will be maintaining momentum by making these gains the catalyst for further investment. The sector remains a crucial part of our inward and global capital investment plans and, with growth set to continue, the Scottish Government stands ready to support them in delivering on their potential and driving Scotland’s recovery.

- Ivan McKee MSP is minister for business, trade tourism and enterprise

This article first appeared in The Scotsman’s Life Sciences 2021 supplement.