A Make-It-Work Approach to Brexit for Life Sciences in the U.K.


The U.K. life sciences industry is dealing with the effects of Brexit not with a whimper but with a bang, to paraphrase the poet T.S. Eliot.

I first reported on the effects of Brexit (Britons leaving the European Union) in March, when life sciences professionals were warning of the dire effects of Brexit if the referendum vote passed on June 23, even though polls then were showing it would probably fail. I wrote on Brexit and the life sciences again on June 17 when the polls had reversed and the predictions of the effect on life sciences were becoming even more dire.

On the day the vote was announced, I and those reporting on other industries for Bloomberg BNA were up early because of the five-hour time difference. When it was announced that the vote was in favor of Brexit, I made my pre-arranged calls to companies and associations in the U.K.

I was frankly surprised with what I was hearing, given what I had been told prior to the Brexit vote. The message was clear: We are extremely disappointed by the vote results, it’s not what we wanted, the path will be a difficult one, but the life sciences industry will not recede and the patients whose benefit we serve will not suffer.

On the one hand, I told myself, what other approach could they take, unless it was the one the moon station commander played by William Shatner in the 1982 movie Airplane II: The Sequel takes when a spacecraft is headed for the moon and the pilot is struggling to control it: “It’s useless. Might as well write him off. Let’s close up the bridge. (He takes a suitcase from under the desk and starts to pack.) Close it up. Lights off. (The lights are turned off.)”

But I still worried a bit about the upbeat tone of my story, especially when other industries and other media reporting on the life sciences industry were continuing the doom and gloom.

I met with some representatives from a U.K. biopharma recently and told them about this. One of them said, “Well, the UK’s we’ll-make-it work attitude is continuing, so it looks like Bloomberg BNA was spot-on.”

They noted the creation of the UK EU Life Sciences Steering Group, headed by GlaxoSmithKline CEO Andrew Witty and AstraZeneca’s Pascal Soriot. On Sept. 9, the group urged U.K. officials to be “flexible” in talks with the EU. As reported by Bloomberg, the task force asked the government to help the industry preserve access to the EU’s market and researchers after Brexit takes effect, probably in 2017.

Putting their money where their mouths are, on July 27, GSK announced £275 million ($364 million) of new investments at three of its U.K. medicines manufacturing facilities and AstraZeneca, which is also based in London, announced a £330 million ($436 million) investment in R&D.

We’ll stay tuned, but so far, as the British say, “Nice one.”

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