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The Policy Ask with Richard Torbett: “The pandemic really demonstrated what the pharma industry does for the world”

The chief executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry on joining Horizon, R&D policy, and his morning run.

By Spotlight

Dr Richard Torbett is head of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, the industry body representing the life sciences and pharmaceuticals sector in the UK. Prior to that, he was chief economist for EFPIA, the European pharmaceutical trade association, as well as working in public policy roles for Pfizer and as a government economist at the Department for International Trade, the Cabinet Office and the European Commission.

How do you start your working day?

If I don’t have a breakfast meeting, I’ll go for a run first thing because if it doesn’t happen then, it just won’t happen – and the day’s always better after a run. Next would be consuming a huge amount of news. Running a trade association means keeping on top of what is happening in the world, the industry and our members. 

What has been your career high?

Being chief executive of ABPI [Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry] at the height of the pandemic with the pharmaceutical industry pushed completely into the spotlight, was a really exhilarating time. It was a crisis which showed the true social and economic value of the industry and what it can do for society and for the world.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

Possibly right now. The last few years have been more challenging for the UK industry than I can ever recall. We have got great opportunities to grow the sector but face some really significant headwinds on the horizon. Trying to navigate that in a way that is realistic and gets us on a good path to growth is very challenging but also very rewarding, and I hope that we can get there.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

Get a coach – and take their advice. Very often I see brilliant colleagues struggle to understand that what made them successful early on in their careers isn’t quite enough to get promoted or move to the next level. Leadership is an entirely new skill set for most people, and it takes work and the ability to listen to advice.

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[See also: Pharma companies call for national vaccination strategy]

What policy or fund is the UK getting right?

The UK is doing some really exciting work around antimicrobial resistance (AMR), which is a looming worldwide health crisis, where the overuse of antibiotics has given rise to drugresistant diseases, threatening the foundations of modern medicine. The UK is one of the only countries in the world to change the way it purchases antibiotics to try and encourage the development of new medicines.

And what policy should the UK government scrap?

Not necessarily to scrap, but the government needs to change how it thinks about health data and how companies and the NHS can work together to support better care, research and innovation, while also ensuring good governance and privacy.

What international government policy could the UK learn from?

There are some features of the R&D system in the US and Switzerland that the UK could learn from. For example, companies have clearer incentives in Switzerland to develop new indications for medicines, which is when a new use for an existing medicine is approved.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to, and why?

The UK joining Horizon Europe is a significant positive milestone for UK research and development. This offers numerous advantages for medical research and development, including enhanced competitiveness, talent attraction and overall advancements in the field. I’m looking forward to seeing the benefits of the new arrangement and how it translates into the UK being more involved in international scientific collaborations.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

I would like to see a law or policy that is focused on addressing the deep health inequalities that exist across the UK. We ought to be able to guarantee that all patients, regardless of where they live, have timely access to highquality care and support to prevent future illness.

[See also: How AI is speeding up diagnosis]

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