Why healthcare and life sciences is still about more than COVID-19

21 January 2021

The healthcare and life sciences were flourishing before COVID-19 and are two sectors largely insulated from the economic impact of COVID-19. 

Life sciences; a thriving sector

The UK BioIndustry Association reported that in 2019, there were more than 70 companies developing advanced therapy medicinal products (ATMPs), 25 manufacturing facilities, and 3 unicorn companies that each reached over US$ 1 billion in value in the UK. The number of clinical trials ongoing in the UK grew by 37% compared to 2018. Looking ahead, there is significant interest in investing in blue-sky research and not just for COVID-19.

The impact of COVID-19

However, companies have seen clinical trial resources redeployed from research activities and regulatory affairs towards front-line care. A UCL study found that the need for clinicians to be on the frontline at the peak of the COVID-19 resulted in clinical research capacity being reduced by up to 87% in England. There have also been enormous disruptive effects on all biomedical research that is not directly related to COVID-19 - laboratories have closed, conferences cancelled, and equipment supply chains have a ground to a halt.

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry reported that by the middle of May 2020 there were more than 1,000 clinical trials ongoing with over 150 treatments being tested. For example, since January, Gilead Sciences has invested significant capital to establish a supply chain capable of large-scale production of remdesivir which stops or heavily delays replication of the COVID-19 virus, which in turn reduces propagation and spread. Another is dexamethasone, a cheap, widely available corticosteroid which in a major clinical trial proved to significantly reduce death rates of severely ill COVID-19 patients.

Incentives for life sciences businesses

Health care and life science innovation has a lot of crossover and similarities with advanced manufacturing technology. There are a number of UK support organisations for these sectors including Innovate UK, Made UK and Catapult organisations.

The Catapult Network brings together 9 elite technology centres established by Innovate UK as a long-term investment in the UK’s economic capability. Through R&D infrastructure, partnership building and specialist knowledge, Catapult helps businesses accelerate the development, deployment and adoption of new technologies, bringing valuable products and services into existence to compete in the global markets of tomorrow.

Another important support organisation is Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre (VMIC) which promotes, develops and accelerates the growth of the UK vaccine industry. One of the core VMIC objectives is to increase inward investment by demonstrating the attractiveness of the UK as the place to carry out this work. VMIC will bridge the gap between research and expertise in development and manufacturing so that new vaccine products can enter clinical development. This is key to attracting funding for further development, partnering with the pharmaceutical industry for development to launch and contract manufacturing. 

There are two different R&D tax credit schemes available: one for large companies and one for small and medium enterprises (SMEs), which potentially enables an R&D tax credit of up to a third of eligible costs.

A cautious emergence from the pandemic

While early stage (preclinical) research was less impacted by COVID-19, businesses still need to be realistic when it comes to the timing of commencing or re-instating clinical trials, particularly those without a COVID-19 focus.

Author: Ian Oliver