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AstraZeneca calls on UK to increase science investment

AstraZeneca’s chair has urged the UK government to increase investment in science, as the drugmaker opened a £1bn research and development campus in Cambridge.

Leif Johansson said it was important to learn the lessons of the pandemic, including making healthcare systems more resilient, and spending more on academic science, using South Korea as a potential model.

He also warned against “vaccine nationalism”, stressing the need for global co-operation, rather than building manufacturing facilities in each sovereign state.

“Anything that Great Britain could do to further increase academic science as a percentage of GDP, which is the way we often measure it . . . could increase GDP in the UK by one percentage point,’‘ he told the Financial Times.

The UK has recently pushed back its target to spend £22bn a year on research and development by two years, to 2026-27, because of fiscal challenges.

But Johanssonn said investment in academic science helped the speedy development of a Covid-19 vaccine. “One of the reasons that we could do the Oxford vaccine was that academics had already done the academic research for much of that,” he said.

Prince Charles, speaking as he opened the discovery centre known as Disc, praised the company’s work collaborating with the University of Oxford on its Covid vaccine.

“Throughout the pandemic, I have greatly admired the dedicated commitment of Pascal [Soriot] and the entire AstraZeneca team,” the prince said. “You have developed and delivered a vaccine for the world in a remarkably short timescale, which will continue to have a positive impact on communities and society for years to come.” 

The AstraZeneca vaccine powered much of the UK’s initial vaccination campaign. But the UK is favouring the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine for its booster rollout, leaving AstraZeneca to focus on commercialising it in other, primarily middle-income, countries.

Earlier on Tuesday, Soriot said the AstraZeneca vaccine could be one of the reasons why UK hospitalisations lagged behind those in Europe, which relied more on mRNA jabs for inoculating older people. He suggested the shot might elicit a longer lasting immune response from T-cells.

AstraZeneca’s sleek, glass centre, designed by the architects behind Tate Modern, will house 2,200 scientists in labs around a quad-style courtyard.

While there were small signs of AstraZeneca’s work on Covid, including a prominently displayed copy of Vaxxers, a book by the Oxford scientists, and a glass sculpture of the coronavirus, the company is trying to turn attention to future drugs.

It showed off its investment in new technologies to speed up drug discovery, including using organs-on-chips to better study early models of disease, giving scientists Microsoft’s HoloLens to help direct experiments remotely, and using smart inhalers and pill bottles to increase remote participation in clinical trials.

Johansson said the investment was decided before Brexit but the company persisted after the UK’s departure from the EU. He said scientific innovation worked best in “clusters” such as the biomedical research campus in Cambridge.

“It’s absolutely a commitment to British science, but it is also a commitment to everything we have locally here around us, the university, the hospital, the biologic centres,” he said.

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