That is a question considered in the latest edition of The Economist. In the article “How British science came to the rescue“, the magazine notes that COVID-19 had highlighted some of the advantages the UK has.
Alongside vast clinical trials, the country has been home to most of the world’s genetic sequencing, the development of a successful jab and its fast roll-out. Elite institutions, streamlined regulation and big datasets are a potent combination—as, it turns out, are close links between business, academia and government.
Another advantage is regulatory. While Brexit had a number of disadvantages, one advantage may be the UK’s ability to more rapidly approve new life sciences products. In an article titled “Why does the EU take longer than the UK to approve a COVID-19 vaccine?“, Professor Steven Evans notes that although the scientific evaluation is similar across all countries,
But under EMA rules, Prof Evans added, a vaccine still needs to be approved by representatives of every EU member state — and the European Commission — before it can enter general circulation in the bloc. That means it is “probably fair to say” that administrative delays are the reason EMA is taking longer to approve [COVID-19] vaccines –rather than, for example, because their process is more or less robust.
The Economist article also notes that while Great Britain lags behind other countries in overall R&D, over 20% of all R&D dollars in Britain go to the health care industry.
One other area that the UK could be a leader is with access to patient data for research purposes.
The health service collects gallons of the stuff [i.e., data]. But it is balkanised, leaving researchers hamstrung by data-sharing rules and interoperability problems. The government eased these rules, enabling both the RECOVERY trial and the OpenSAFELY one, which studied COVID-19’s demographic impact. When the PRINCIPLE trial, which looks at pre-hospital treatment, was struggling to recruit, researchers teamed up with the test-and-trace system to bring in patients. Health Data Research UK, an outfit set up along with the industrial strategy, helped smooth data transfer for RECOVERY and COG-UK.
With good data, efficient regulation, an international collection of talent, R&D funds focused on the health care, the UK could see big gains in life science activity in the coming years.