Life sector warned of emerging risk threats

The UK life sciences sector has been warned it needs to plan for a range of emerging risks which may impact its growth and future profitability.

The country’s pharmaceutical sector is forecast to grow faster than its European peers but prevailing productivity issues could scupper progress, research from business insurer QBE has found.

According to its new report, Productivity and profit: forecast for the UK life sciences sector, pharmaceutical output will grow by 4.1% in real terms in 2023, supporting what minor growth is expected this year in the UK, with GDP predicted to increase by just 0.3%.

Growth output for UK pharmaceuticals is predicted to be higher than competitors in Germany
(1.2%), France (2.6%), and Spain (3.7%).   While growth is likely to lag behind Italy and Nordic countries for 2023, for the next three years (2024 to 2026), UK pharmaceutical output growth is forecast to average 1.3% a year, higher than the predicted 1.1% growth in Italy and 1% growth in Nordic countries over the same period.

However, QBE warned despite the positive outlook, the sector will be subject to several risks over the next few years that have the potential to impact productivity and profits.

“The UK economy has been beset by poor productivity since the global financial crisis, and in the life sciences sector, output has been worse than the majority of the economy with productivity declining by an average of 2.7% a year between 2010 and 2019,” it added. “This has the potential to impact price competitiveness and profit margins, which could deter investment in the sector.”

Other risks to watch for include:

  • A potential government response to the EU’s recent pharmaceutical package: does the UK follow suit and reduce red tape – but also prices? Should the UK opt to apply similar measures, this would make it easier for companies operating in both markets, while significant diversion could further complicate compliance. The government has given little indication of its intent to reform the sector’s regulatory framework and legislative change may well fall down the priority list ahead of the next elections, prolonging uncertainty into the next parliamentary term.
  • Progress on negotiations for renewed UK membership of Horizon Europe, the EU-led funding programme for research and innovation. Although the Windsor Framework agreement on the post-Brexit status of Northern Ireland paved the way for the UK to rejoin the programme, disagreements about costs could still derail the plan. The government has indicated that it could instead still choose to fund projects directly, outside Horizon. Until the UK decides which path to take, life science research in the UK faces significant funding uncertainty.
  • Healthcare policy positioning ahead of likely 2024 elections: is the focus purely on primary care or do political parties have broader ambitions, such as rolling out innovative treatments? Both the Conservatives and Labour are likely to make support for the NHS a key electoral position. However, details of policies related to interaction between healthcare and the life sciences sector are so far thin on the ground. The research and development side of the sector is likely to struggle to make its voice heard with potential policymakers who are focusing on what they view as more urgent issues for voters.

In order to boost growth, the report recommends firms across the life sciences sector focus on retaining and attracting talent and digitalisation.  Firms should also be alert to opportunities the switch in the regulation of medicines and medical products to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (from the European Medicines Agency) offers.  Both in the way it may operate (such as the rapid approval protocols as announced in the 2023 Budget for the most impactful technologies and medicines such as cancer and mental health therapeutics) to satisfying overseas suppliers’ needs to sell into the UK.

Tim Galloway, Portfolio Manager for Life Sciences, QBE International, said: “The outlook for the UK life sciences sector remains broadly positive, but organisations should keep a close eye on emerging risks that have the potential to hamper future growth and profitability.  The changeover in regulation presents real opportunities for firms who are set up to avail of the rapid approval protocols and research and development, both the funding of and talent to deliver, will be key to this.”

The UK’s pharmaceutical sector is forecast to grow faster than its European peers but prevailing productivity issues could scupper progress, research from business insurer QBE has found.