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U.K. Minister George Freeman

U.K. Minister George Freeman says Brexit may help make the United Kingdom a “world leader” in regenerative medicine.

© Chris King/Alamy Stock Photo

U.K. government enlists industry leaders to chart post-Brexit course for life sciences

LONDON—While many scientists in the United Kingdom are still reeling from the country’s decision to leave the European Union, politicians and industry leaders are starting to think about what science in a post-Brexit United Kingdom might look like. At a press briefing here yesterday, the country's minister for life sciences, George Freeman, announced that he had convened a joint government-industry steering group to "set out key priorities for the U.K. life sciences sector" in the upcoming divorce negotiations with the European Union. The group will be co-chaired by GlaxoSmithKline CEO Andrew Witty and Pascal Soriot, CEO of AstraZeneca.

Scientists are worried that outside the European Union, they will find it harder to recruit top researchers to the United Kingdom and will be cut off from lucrative E.U. research grants and scientific collaborations. The European Medicines Agency (EMA), based in London, is likely to relocate to one of the remaining 27 member countries, and it's unclear whether drug manufacturers will in the future have to apply separately for authorization in the United Kingdom. It’s also unclear what will happen to plans for the Unified Patent Court, a new patent court for European Union member states that is now being established. The section handling chemistry cases, including pharmaceuticals, was to have its seat in London. Freeman said the steering group will look at all of these issues over the summer.

But leaving the European Union could also offer some opportunities, for instance in regenerative medicine, Freeman said, where regulatory barriers have been growing in Europe and the United States. "Clearly there is an opportunity here for the U.K. to be a world leader,” he said.

In the months before the referendum, supporters of the Leave campaign often scoffed at the dire predictions of those arguing against a Brexit, calling it "Project Fear." Yesterday, it seemed like Freeman had embarked on an alternative project called “Don’t Panic.” He stressed that nothing will change immediately because it may take the United Kingdom 2 to 3 years to negotiate its exit from the European Union. Until then, the country will continue to play a role in regulatory bodies like EMA, he stressed. "I will be going to Brussels in the next 2 weeks to meet with leaders there to make that very clear.”

Put very bluntly, I suppose I’m saying Nigel Farage does not speak for this country.

U.K. Minister George Freeman

And even after a Brexit, the United Kingdom would still be able to influence regulatory thinking in Europe, he argued, although he offered no details on how this would work. “We are, and intend to remain, a very influential regulatory voice in the European life science sector," Freeman said. "I want us to be a place that the EMA would look at and say: 'We want to have a strong link to the U.K. because they are pioneering in these new therapies and in bringing them more quickly to patients.'”

Freeman also tried to reassure investors that "the U.K. is still today the life science powerhouse that it was 10 days ago.” And he had a message for those worried about anti-E.U. sentiments in the United Kingdom, expressed in strong language during the campaign and an abrasive victory speech by United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage (who stepped down from the position 2 days ago) in the European Parliament last week. "Our ambition is to be an active and collaborative neighbor,” Freeman said. "Put very bluntly, I suppose I’m saying Nigel Farage does not speak for this country.”