Undoubtedly, yes, says Jan Wauters. The benefits to Britain and Europe are too great, he argues, and without that partnership, advances in science such as those achieved with the Covid-19 pandemic response will not be possible to the same degree.
The issue of collaboration is again in the news following the Windsor Framework in February. There was initial excitement, that it would mean that the UK would rejoin the Horizon Europe research programme. However, there is no certainty that this will happen. Does it matter if the EU and UK collaborate on life sciences? Can the UK rejoin Horizon Europe without being a member of the EU?
Flanders, the northern region of Belgium, has become a world-leading life science hub since constitutional changes gave the region greater autonomy in the 1980s. It is now often referred to as a true-life sciences hub. To give you just one example of the dominance of the region in this field: more than 90% of all UK Covid-19 vaccines were made in the region.
The Covid pandemic highlighted the importance of life sciences to mankind, and there will be another pandemic, but even before that, people are dying every day from conditions and diseases that one day will be curable. The race to find those cures is not as high profile as the race for the vaccine, but if it’s your life or that of a loved one, it is every bit as urgent.
If we’d been working in isolation on the vaccine, we would each hold only part of the puzzle that needed solving. By sharing our intellectual resources, we were able to learn from each other
The development and delivery of the Covid-19 vaccine should be a powerful lesson to all on the impact of collaboration. In normal circumstances, it takes 14 years to take a medicine from research to market. However, with focus and international collaboration, we brought that right down to a few months. If we’d been working in isolation on the vaccine, we would each hold only part of the puzzle that needed solving. By sharing our intellectual resources, we were able to learn from each other, to focus on issues that had not been solved and use our strengths in the most effective way.
Aside from the compelling human benefits, the fact that collaboration has such a dramatic impact on reducing timescales, also makes the commercial benefits undeniable when patents last a mere 20 years. However, the commercial drivers also demand that we find competitive advantage, and in a collaborative model that is not always easy to find. We might look at defining the IP in the delivery or the targeting of the medicine. We should also learn from industries, such as semi-conductors, which are more mature in their understanding of competitive collaboration.
As the sector moves towards personalised medicine (using a person's own genes or proteins to prevent, diagnose, or treat disease) the costs of development will increase. Personalised medicine is an area of life science where the UK is ahead on development. The national setup of the NHS has also solved some of the many challenges the field introduces, such as data protection. I believe that UK involvement will be vital in this area of life sciences.
Many were consequently excited by the prospect of the UK rejoining Horizon Europe Research Programme. As I’m sure you know, it is the EU’s key funding programme for research and innovation with a budget of €95.5 billion. Horizon Europe facilitates collaboration in applied research and strengthens the impact of research and innovation in developing, supporting and implementing EU policies. It supports creating and better dispersing of knowledge and technologies, so is a central driver of collaboration in R&D across Europe.
Contrary to some reports I read, the Horizon Europe Research Programme is not restricted to EU members. There are three types of countries that are eligible for Horizon Europe: EU Member States, third countries associated and other third countries. The third countries associated include Iceland, Norway, Turkey and Ukraine. Certainly, from a scientific perspective, it would be straightforward to add the UK to that list. The EU also works very productively with the US’ National Institute of Health.
Life sciences exist to the benefit of us all; the problems they solve do not stop at the borders. The UK, both during the pandemic and at many other times in history, has made an invaluable contribution to their advancement, but rarely in recent times, has that been achieved alone. Advancement has happened because of collaboration, as was so powerfully demonstrated with the vaccine. In Flanders, we’re very proud of that collaboration and hope that it will be just one of many similar achievements.
In June Flanders Investment & Trade will be sponsoring the Knowledge for Growth life science conference in Flanders’ main city, Antwerp.
Jan Wauters is Science and Technology Counselor at Flanders Investment & Trade, an official body of the Government of the Flanders region of Belgium, with an office at the Belgian Embassy in London to help UK businesses access the EU