ALEX BRUMMER: Astrazeneca defies its critics to show British pharma can flourish outside the EU
During a conversation with Astrazeneca boss Pascal Soriot this year, the French executive remarked that British science and pharmaceuticals did not have to be losers from the UK’s new relationship with the EU.
In the same way as Soriot defied the odds in 2014, when he repelled a £69billion bid for the company from Pfizer, he regarded the Brexit rage from the science sector as misplaced.
Sure, it would be a loss that the European Medicines Agency (EMA) would be moving from London to the Hague but it offered a real opportunity for the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
Positive outlook: Astrazeneca boss Pascal Soriot said British science and pharmaceuticals did not have to be losers from the UK’s new relationship with the EU
If scientists and regulators at the MHRA could get their act together and cut through the bureaucracy surrounding approval of new compounds and devices, and match the pace at which medical advances are coming through, then being outside the EU could be an advantage.
Britain could bring treatments to the market more swiftly than hidebound counterparts in Washington and on the continent.
So it has proved in the battle against Sars-Cov-2, the virus at the core of the pandemic.
The MHRA, in the face of a sniffy response from EMA, was first out of the traps in approving the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine and has now done the same for Britain’s Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine, offering much earlier hope to tens of millions of Britons.
And while it may seem odd to be upbeat about the UK’s fight against the coronavirus when infections are at record levels and some hospitals bulging at the seams, it is worth reflecting on achievements.
The only reason the world is aware of the new mutation of the Covid virus is because of UK science.
Moreover, earlier this year when there was panic about Britain’s shortage of ventilators compared with Germany, British engineering from motor sports workshops in the Thames Valley to science at University College London came racing to the rescue.
Too often, boards of directors and shareholders are slow to recognise long-term value and contribution in companies such as Astra, and simply hold out for a higher price when faced with a takeover.
Soriot and the Astra board were rare holdouts with two non-executives, Baroness Vadera and former Barclays chief executive John Varley, among the staunchest defenders of a company which traces its roots back to Britain’s industrial pioneer ICI.
Among the disagreeable aspects of the interregnum between the December 2019 election, which finally decided our fate outside Europe, and the passage of the UK-Europe free trade deal passed by Parliament is the unwillingness of corporate Britain to remain true to confidence in the UK’s future.
Disgracefully, Stephen Hester and the board of insurer RSA, which has roots dating back to the Great Fire of London, felt it better to sell to Dutch and Canadian predators.
What they failed to recognise was that the firm was being sold on the cheap when UK markets have been lagging global counterparts by at least 20 per cent.
RSA was not alone. At the time of writing it is all but certain that the world’s largest security firm, G4S, which guards parts of our nuclear fleet, is to be sold to a smaller US bidder.
And Codemasters, one of Britain’s cutting-edge gaming firms, is about to be swallowed by Electronic Arts. The fate of Softbank-owned Arm Holdings – a product of Cambridge – hangs in the balance with America’s Nvidia set to take control.
One of the great balancing acts for global Britain is remaining open as ever to overseas investment while recognising the domestic value of great science, research and development and the importance in keeping headquarters operations and corporate tax revenues in Britain.
Astra illustrates this well. It is receiving accolades for its vision on vaccines. But it really ought to be receiving credit for its establishment of a £1billion open access research centre in Cambridge and ground-breaking work (still going on) on immunology treatments for cancer.
Investors so far have taken a dim view of Soriot’s £29billion bid for US rare disease specialist Alexion, with two potential blockbuster drugs already approved in the US and EU, 11 promising medicines in the pipeline and good immunology expertise.
Many great mistakes are made in mergers and acquisitions. If any company deserves the trust of investors it is Astrazeneca.