UK sees steep fall in new clinical trials over past five years

A worker is pictured during a clinical trial of tests for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) antibodies, at Keele University, in Keele, Britain June 30, 2020. REUTERS/Carl Recine/File Photo

LONDON, Oct 20 (Reuters) - The number of clinical trials started in Britain each year dropped by 41% between 2017 and 2021, posing a "clear and serious threat" to its reputation as a clinical research destination, an industry report said on Thursday.

The UK government has been vocal about cementing its position as a global science superpower and capitalising on clinical research conducted at the height of the pandemic that led to the discovery of multiple COVID interventions, from vaccines to drugs.

However, the report by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) said the drop in clinical trial activity painted a concerning picture.

In particular, it highlighted a near halving in new late-stage trials, which are typically key to securing regulatory approvals for medicines. That pushed Britain to 10th from 4th in global rankings for such trials, it said.

"The reality is that industry are finding it increasingly difficult to conduct clinical trials in the UK and are increasingly looking elsewhere," said Jennifer Harris, ABPI’s director of research policy.

Like other countries, Britain's clinical trial research ecosystem has been affected by COVID-19 limiting activity in other disease areas, but other countries such as Spain, Germany or France that have similar population sizes and fairly comparable research ecosystems have fared better, she said.

A key issue is on the operational side, she said, explaining that, for instance, if a company is conducting a global clinical trial that is using trial sites across Britain, there is a difference in the costing and contracting processes across sites, which can lead to protracted negotiations.

And although there is a national approach that has been introduced by the UK government, it hasn't yet been adopted by all sites, added Harris.

She noted that such a harmonised process is already in place in countries such as Spain and France, which limits the amount of negotiation between sites and sponsors to ensure there is a clear timeframe within which a study is set up.

The loss of research potentially reduces benefits to patients and costs the National Health System (NHS), which has long been grappling with a crippling strain on its finances.

Between 2020 to 2021, the loss of industry research is estimated to have hurt the NHS’s finances by up to 447 million pounds ($501 million), the report said.

($1 = 0.8921 pounds)

Reporting by Natalie Grover in London; Editing by Mark Potter

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