LONDON (Reuters) - Britain said Monday it would promote use of new medicines and use a 180 million pounds ($280 million) fund to bring modern technologies to market under a package of reforms designed to attract investment from big pharmaceuticals companies.
Prime Minister David Cameron also outlined plans to open up a potential treasure trove of anonymized medical data collected by the state-funded National Health Service (NHS) for use by private firms.
The measures is a shot in the arm for Britain’s 50-billion pound turnover life sciences industry, which has faced a range of high-profile cutbacks in the past two years.
“The most crucial, fundamental thing we’re doing is opening up the NHS to new ideas,” Cameron told pharmaceutical industry executives in London.
“The end-game is for the NHS to be working hand-in-glove with industry as the fastest adopter of new ideas in the world, acting as a huge magnet to pull new innovations through, right along the food chain — from the labs to the boardrooms to the hospital bed.”
Drug companies have been complaining for years that Britain was often slow to adopt new medicines and use them in the NHS.
Cameron’s plan was welcomed by Britain’s largest drugmaker, GlaxoSmithKline, which said it was an important next step “on the journey to make the UK the best place in the world to locate pharmaceutical investment.”
Part of the support outlined by Cameron, dubbed the Biomedical Catalyst fund, will be open to universities and small and medium-sized enterprises.
An early-access scheme will also be set up, under which seriously-ill patients could use new drugs up to a year before they are fully licensed.
“It can take 20 years from the discovery of a drug to getting it to market,” Cameron said. “This is hurting everyone — industry, taxpayers, above all patients. The worst of it is, this is so unnecessary.”
Another part of the plans will allow more patient records and other NHS data to be shared with life sciences companies, a move some critics fear may compromise confidentiality.
But Cameron said the data would remain completely anonymous and he argued that giving researchers from private sector companies access to NHS information would make it easier for them to develop and test new drugs and treatments.
The government intends to change the NHS constitution so that the default is for patients’ data to be used for research, unless they opt out.
Sarah Chan, deputy director of Manchester University’s institute for science, ethics and innovations, said worries about patient privacy were overdone.
“The wealth of data collected by the NHS represents a vast and potentially very valuable resource that could be used to facilitate highly beneficial research. The concerns over privacy and confidentiality ... are perhaps overblown,” she said in an emailed comment.
Britain has been particularly reliant on pharmaceutical firms for success in manufacturing, but the industry has been under pressure in recent years and forced to make cuts.
Cameron said Britain was feeling the fallout of the global challenges now facing the sector, with plans by Pfizer to close its research and development site in Sandwich, southern England, and a move by AstraZeneca to quit its Charnwood research site in central England.
Investment returns from researching new drugs have fallen nearly 30 percent in the past year at the world’s 12 top pharmaceutical companies, highlighting the productivity dilemma facing the sector, according to a study by Deloitte and Thomson Reuters published last month.
With capacity coming out of the industry around the world, Cameron said he was determined to make Britain a prime location for future pharma investment.
“We’re going to be more flexible, more competitive, more hungry for your business than ever before,” he told executives at the FT Global Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology conference.
Simon Friend, pharmaceuticals and life sciences leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers, said it remained to be seen how Britain would fare in the face of competition from other governments that also wanted to entice limited life science investment.
“Will it bite in a competitive global environment? It’s a good initiative but only time will tell if it works,” he said.
Additional reporting Mohammed Abbas; Editing by Jane Merriman and David Hulmes