Roche CEO Worried About U.K. Drug Research Following Brexit

Updated on
  • Schwan says patient access to medicines spurs innovation
  • Brexit may also be opportunity to redesign U.K. approach

Severin Schwan.

Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

The U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union poses a threat to research and development in the pharmaceutical industry, Roche Holding AG Chief Executive Officer Severin Schwan said.

A departure would mean the country would have to set up its own system for approving drugs for sale, a job now done for bloc members by the European Medicines Agency. That could put U.K. patients at risk of not getting access to medicines as quickly as they do elsewhere in Europe.

“If certain really cutting-edge, innovative medicines are not available in the U.K. and are not part of the standard of care, this hampers research and development,” Schwan told reporters on a call following the company’s half-year results Thursday. “This is really, really the critical part.”

The Swiss drugmaker, which expects to introduce five new medicines this year alone, said access to the newest treatments will need to continue if the U.K. wants to be seen as an innovation hub. Roche, the world’s biggest maker of cancer drugs, has lambasted the U.K. for calling into question and stopping reimbursement of some its tumor-fighting treatments.

Cold Feet

Smaller biotechnology firms and university scientists share some of Schwan’s concerns, saying that Brexit may hurt research by curbing their ability to attract skilled workers and funding. About 1 billion pounds ($1.3 billion) in research funding may drain out of programs that seek to develop new medicines in coming years, according to analysts at Shore Capital Group Ltd. Some job candidates from EU countries are getting cold feet, according to company and university leaders, a reaction that risks depleting the pool of international researchers the U.K. has thrived on for decades.

“My impression in the U.K. is in the many discussions I have with stakeholders -- government, clinicians, people from academia -- is that somehow the discussion is siloed,” Schwan said. “People think and talk about it as if it was completely independent, that you have research and development on one hand, and then you have the NHS and the access to medicines on the other, and of course this is not the case.”

While Schwan sounded a warning, he also said leaving the EU could result in a new U.K. system that gets medicines to patients more quickly than it does now.

“Perhaps it’s an opportunity,” Schwan said. “Perhaps we look back in a couple of years and the U.K. now, being on its own if you like, on the regulatory front and on the access front, takes a more holistic approach, which ultimately would benefit patients.”

(Updates with Novartis CEO comments in ninth, tenth paragraphs.)
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