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22 July 2021updated 12 Sep 2021 2:55pm

Lord Bethell: “The UK has a deep heritage in biotech”

The health and economic benefits of the life sciences sector will help the UK build back better, says the Minister for Innovation.

By James Bethell

The biotechnology industry has played a crucial role in our response to Covid-19. Whether it’s the development of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, genomic sequencing of the virus to track new variants, or the Recovery trial identifying safe and effective therapeutics, biotechnology has never played such an important role in ensuring the health and wealth of our nation. We have been able to respond rapidly to the threat posed by Covid-19 thanks to our world-leading science and research infrastructure, and genomic and health data capabilities.

Both government and the sector have made significant investments in diagnostic and vaccine R&D and manufacturing capacity. NHS Test and Trace will have created the capacity to manufacture two million lateral flow devices per day by autumn 2021 and the UK’s vaccines taskforce has invested £350m to increase vaccine manufacturing capacity on our shores.

These investments open up significant opportunities for improving healthcare beyond the pandemic. By increasing the UK’s diagnostic capabilities we will be able to provide patients with the right tests, at the right time, in the right place. This means treating people earlier with more precise diagnostics to prevent as well as diagnose illness, while giving patients more control over their own health by encouraging self-monitoring. Using diagnostics earlier and more effectively will help us move away from a model of get sick, get tested, get treated and towards a model of get tested, get treated.

We will pursue these opportunities by continuing to develop our strengths in R&D in biotechnology. Clinical research is the backbone of healthcare innovation and thanks to the UK government’s ongoing investment and the expertise of the National Institute for Health Research, we are a world leader in this space. These capabilities have placed us at the forefront of Covid-19 research, with the first global participants in the Janssen and Novavax trials recruited in Dundee and Blackpool.

We also have the opportunity to drive the next generation of biotechnology discoveries through investing and developing our expertise in genomics and health data. In response to the pandemic, the government and Wellcome Trust rapidly funded the Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium, which has taken a leading role in sequencing and analysing viral genomes. Experts from across all four nations have sequenced more than half a million genomes since the pandemic began and around a third of all genomes submitted to the global database have been from the UK. We will build on this incredible progress to support the growth and development of innovative genomics-focussed firms.

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The health benefits of a thriving bio-industry are clear, but this sector also delivers important economic opportunities. The UK has a deep heritage in biotechnology providing high-quality jobs across the country. From medtech in Yorkshire and Humber to Liverpool’s reputation as a leading centre for infection and immunology research, our priority is to make sure the sector has the support to build on this heritage and grow, attracting investment and creating jobs around the UK, working in close partnership with academia and government.

Biotechnology has been crucial in tackling Covid-19 and will help us develop new tools to improve how we approach research, diagnosis and treatment. Our recently launched Life Sciences Vision sets out our continued ambition to ensure the UK is the leading global location for the life sciences to innovate, grow and deliver breakthroughs to patients and the public. This is key to making sure we can gain from the health and economic benefits generated by the life sciences sector, helping us build back better and level up across the UK.

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