Life Sciences Conference: Taking the lessons from Covid crisis forward

The life sciences community must continue working at speed and forging productive partnerships if it is to realise the progress made during the Covid-19 response.

Picture: Quality Stock Arts/Shutterstock

Steve Bates, chief executive of the UK Bioindustry Association, told The Scotsman’s virtual life sciences conference that there was “unprecedented collaboration” during the crisis.

“No-one worried who people were, or where they were from, they just got on with solving problems,” said Bates, himself a former member of the UK Vaccines Taskforce.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“We have seen, across the UK, that we can work together – academia, industry, and the NHS. We found ways to make things happen and happen fast.

“The new way of doing things is the legacy. The question is how do we do that in ‘peacetime’ as opposed to during ‘war’. How do we maintain that process and that way of working?”

The second legacy, Bates said, was a greater prominence for the life sciences sector: “This is a more high-profile sector now than it was, which is really important for a number of reasons.”

This included a recognition by the UK Government and agencies that life sciences had underpinned the opening up of the economy –which led to a very positive funding settlement for science in the UK Spending Review, to support more innovative businesses.

It also meant greater public understanding and global visibility, said Bates.

He told the event: “We’ve got increased focus on the UK, in part because of the work that Kate [Bingham] did with the Vaccines Taskforce, in part because we have been pioneers and leaders, in part because excellent science is well-published from here. And in part, because we’ve shown the way with the capability to do rollout in a healthcare system. This global focus led to more investor interest in the UK.”

Bates said another effect of Covid was living with “a legacy of expectation and legacy of being able to move fast. ‘If you did it for Covid, why can’t you do it for dementia?’ This is a challenge we need to accept, but also explain.”

Lessons learned as well as powerful collaborations included regulators allowing approvals in a staged way, he suggested.

Bates also told the conference that “overnight success came as a result of many, many decades of hard work”. He said: “We were able to be responsive as a life science ecosystem, in part because we’ve been working hard at many things for ten or 20 years.

“Life sciences has many small expert players with deep knowledge, and it was knowing how to link those together. It’s a really collaborative gang. People know that science is a team game.”

This meant there was mutual respect and that the whole was greater than the sum of the parts, he concluded.

Dave Tudor, managing director of the Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre, said health would always be the NHS’s top priority – but that it also had an economic role to play in working with industry to create new products and services to provide more effective healthcare.

Tudor – who is stepping down in early 2022 as co-chair of the Life Sciences Scotland Industry Leadership Group – set an ambitious target for the sector in Scotland to deliver £8 billion to the economy annually by 2025, from a starting-point of under £4.5m in 2017.

He said: “We punch way above our weight in the ability to create innovative products. I wanted to get the balance between the research and development and turn it into production and process sustainability to try and rebalance some of the longer-term supply chain, manufacturing and processing capabilities.”

The contribution from production, processing, and supply chain was now significantly greater than four or five years ago, he added, “And at the same time, which is absolutely critical, the R&D part is growing. The number of companies is growing rapidly as well and we’re close to a £7bn sector just now, so on target for achieving that ambition.”

Tudor said one historic challenge was that “Scotland wanted to compete with Scotland”.

He added: “I found that really strange because in reality, Scotland should think it is one life sciences cluster. When Scotland works together, it can be incredibly powerful. So we need to recognise and respect the strength we have in different regions, and play the game together, display that and promote it to the world.”

Tudor and other speakers at the conference reiterated the enormous value of the “Triple Helix” of collaboration between industry, academia and the NHS in translating innovation into value

He said: “The mission of the NHS is to deliver the health of the nation and it is an incredible organisation doing an amazing job every single day.

“But I’m also a firm believer [the NHS] can impact the wealth of the nation… by having an efficient, logical, fair and compliant assessment of products coming through, whether it’s pharmaceutical devices or diagnostics. And it can also impact the wealth of the nation by some of the research it’s doing and taking that out into industry.

“I believe in this missionof health and wealth, withthe priority being health. When I engage with health ministers, or CEOs of health boards, they all get this message of health and wealth.

“Alignment at the very senior [level] is the best I’ve seen, but it will take time to percolate down through the different NHS organisations.”

Tudor also argued that real progress had been made in creating a competitive taxation landscape for life sciences in Scotland and the UK – as good as Ireland or Singapore.

And he stressed that it was crucial to use data effectively, make progress on future skills and take a “big step up in manufacturing supply chain efficiency”.

If the pieces fell into place, Scotland could have a £10bn or £12bn life sciences sector, Tudor claimed: “There’s no reason why that can’t happen and deliver an even better outcome for the patients of Scotland.”

Save time, save lives

The pace of pandemic change and digital technology must be harnessed to slash the cost and time needed to bring medicines to market, the conference heard.

Mark Fish, managing director at Accenture’s Scientific Informatics Services, said the cost of developing new medicines was “just staggering” – sometimes billions of dollars over a seven to 12-year timeframe from treatment concept to patients using medicines.

“There was already pressure on the system and post-Covid has fundamentally changed expectations,” said Fish.

There was “frustration at repeated processes” and the too-frequent use of paper processes, transcription and old-fashioned spreadsheets in labs, Fish said: “Some of our research says it can be three hours a day or more of scientists’ time transcribing, checking and massaging data – time not doing science. There’s real potential for efficiency gains.”

John Arthur, director of the Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre (MMIC), said: “Digital isn’t anything particularly new [but] the speed of technology, and the speed these systems work, allows us to do far more than we’ve ever done before.”

He urged industry to be pragmatic and ask very specific questions: “What am I trying to achieve? What is my digital strategy? What bits of my architecture do I want to start talking to each other? What’s my data strategy? Where do I need my data? What am I using my data for?”

Barry Heavey, managing director for Life Sciences at Accenture, said there was a need for “much faster and more flawless collaboration”.

He added: “You’re getting into a situation where companies may have to launch products with sub-optimal manufacturing processes, then after the launch maybe go back and fix the aeroplane when it’s in flight. It can be quite difficult to make changes to a process that’s already been approved in multiple countries.

“If you go faster and get as close to an optimal process of manufacturing as quickly as possible, maybe you can fix the aeroplane before it takes off and make the product more accessible to lots of people quicker.

“From a digital perspective, if you’re ahead in terms of ease of doing business with, you’re going to have a big competitive advantage.”

Katie Murray, technical director of MMIC, described the digital focus of “grand challenges” designed to improve the efficiency of the medicines manufacturing process, and “dramatically reduce time, waste, cost and carbon footprint”.

On sustainability, she said: “I think the ‘big stick’ is coming. Large pharma firms are making very bold commitments about what they’re going to achieve – not just the emissions in their control, but also in terms of raw materials, and what happens once medicines leave their plants.

“But there’s a lot of synergies between improving your processes, making more money and also reducing your carbon footprint.”

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by Coronavirus impacts our advertisers.

If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.