Brexit & its impact on life sciences in Scotland

Wednesday 6th February 2019

Addressing the Life Sciences CPG for the second time in his capacity as Minister for Trade, Investment & Innovation, Ivan McKee outlined what he described as the “extremely concerning” situation faced by Scotland’s economy as the UK’s departure from the EU draws nearer.

Despite a “very encouraging” £5.2bn turnover in Scottish life sciences, reported in November 2018, the Minister expressed his fears for a sector in the “unfortunate position of potentially being hit from multiple directions”.

 “The availability of skills is a significant challenge for the sector, be that links to academia and the challenges universities have faced…The complexity of cross-border supply chains will also affect the sector significantly”, he explained, referring to Brexit.

There is also a lack of clarity over the nature of the regulatory environment going forward.”

The Minister identified areas where his administration had already taken action to mitigate any negative effects, stating:

The Scottish Government, through Scottish Enterprise and its agencies, has worked on a Brexit toolkit that is available for businesses to assess where they think they are and what they need, because every business will need to take different decisions depending on their profile…

Money was also made available last year to help businesses fund specific support activity that they needed to undertake to help prepare them for Brexit.”

He assured those attending the CPG the Scottish Government was undertaking detailed work to identify areas where there could be particular vulnerabilities, and was “working with UK Government to understand where it is that we can supplement what they are doing, be that in how prepared the NHS is or in terms of import and export requirements etc.”

However, he emphasised that such work was “only being done as best it can be given the lack of clarity from the UK Government…it is very difficult to see where things go from here.”

Staff & skills

The presentation by Professor of Molecular Pharmacology at the University of Glasgow, Andrew Tobin, focused on research in treatments for dementia; a condition that affects around 35 million people worldwide and for which there is, as yet, no cure or effective means of slowing progression of the disease.

Professor Tobin and his research team have been involved in developing a drug that targets the receptors of neurons in the brain, helping to tackle the degenerative nature of dementia by mimicking the transmission function that facilitate learning and memory.

Explaining how his research “maps on to Europe”, Professor Tobin outlined machines and materials sourced from Europe and said the majority of his staff came from outside the UK, including Germany, India and Italy. Maintaining such a diverse and expert workforce would likely become much more difficult in a Scotland that had lost EU membership, he explained.

Professor Tobin also highlighted a research collaboration between his university and GSK focused on treatments for malaria.

Given that the blood serum used in this particular project was sourced from Sweden, he emphasised that Brexit posed a significant threat to the continuation of this research in its current form.

Professor Tobin also highlighted the knock-on effects of fewer individuals coming to work in life sciences in Scotland, potentially discouraged by expensive and time-consuming visa processes and a lack of certainty as to whether they would be allowed to settle here..

Many who come to work in an academic setting in Scotland gain significant pre-clinical experience making them a more attractive asset to pharmaceutical companies operating in the UK.

He warned that lowering the number of individuals coming to Scotland to gain pre-clinical expertise could lead to the pharmaceutical industry and development of new drugs experiencing a skills shortage..

Availability & licensing of medicines

Professor Stuart Ralston, who is based at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Genomic and Experimental Medicine, focused on the licensing of medicines.

He explained the difficulties the UK would likely face upon leaving the EU as it moved down the priority list for drug companies seeking approval for new medicines.

The USA, Europe and Japan constitute the most attractive markets for medicines manufacturers, as their size makes the efforts of going through costly approval processes a worthwhile investment.

Professor Ralston stated the UK would retain very little appeal as a market for drug companies to approach if it were to leave the EU and move to independent approval processes.

That moves have already been made by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) to reassign the UK’s rapporteur-ships among remaining members was regrettable, he said, and evidence of Brexit already taking a toll on the commercial market preference for new medicines and devices that the UK had enjoyed previously.

Members of the EMA enjoy greater efficiencies in drug licensing processes given the collective expertise members can provide, therefore ensuring they sit higher in the priorities of drug companies looking to bring new medicines to patients.

Concerns about the supply of medicines in the event of a no deal Brexit scenario were also raised this week during a Ministerial Statement from Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations, Michael Russell.

The CPG will next meet on the 28th May.