Stephen O’Brien: The challenge of converting world-class research into British economic success. Here’s an example than works.

21 Feb

Sir Stephen O’Brien is a former International Development Minister and United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. 

The recent interesting and challenging posts on this site by David Davis and ConservativeHome’s Editor, Paul Goodman, have highlighted a vitally important competitive and productivity-centred area of inter-sectoral activity – which it will be vital we get right as the UK is shepherded out of the economic strains of Covid19 and its variants in the post-Brexit context.

Our ability to convert the UK’s world-class R&D into tangible end products is often touted as an area in which UK plc has historically struggled. Supporters of this view point to high-profile examples of overseas companies bringing blockbuster products to market simply by exploiting and leveraging the product’s origins which lie in UK academic research.

But is this really the case? Is UK plc truly unable to move R&D into a finished product or service?

In public health, this so-called ‘bench to bedside’ approach to translational research is alive and well, thanks to Product Development Partnerships (PDPs). A PDP is a not-for-profit public-private partnership that enables the public, private, academic, and philanthropic sectors to aggregate funding for the development of drugs, vaccines, vector control and other health tools in the developing world.

PDPs reduce industry and donor risks for investment in diseases such as malaria by leveraging multiple funders, employing strict portfolio management strategies, and implementing a commercially oriented, lean operating model. PDPs focus on developing products that would be unlikely to be developed through normal commercial channels owing to market failures, providing funding and expertise to translate basic science and early discovery work into products that save lives.

PDPs were established in the mid-1990s to help address the 10/90 gap – that only 10 per cent of health research funding was targeted toward diseases that accounted for 90 per cent of the global disease burden (GFHR, 2004). While each PDP operates differently depending on the area of disease focus, they typically employ a portfolio approach to R&D to accelerate product development by pursuing multiple strategies for the same disease area.

Spun out of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in 2005, The Innovative Vector Control Consortium (IVCC) which I have privilege to Chair, is the world’s only PDP facilitating the development and deployment of new vector control interventions to help prevent the 400,000 needless deaths a year caused by malaria.

The mass-roll out of insecticidal treated bed nets at the turn of this century helped almost halve the number of annual malaria deaths – a significant achievement – but their deployment has had an unintended consequence. The mosquito which transmits the malaria parasite has quickly developed resistance to the insecticides used on bed nets and, without a pipeline of new tools, insecticide resistance has the potential to undo the significant progress to date. According to the World Health Organisation the fight against malaria has in recent years ‘stalled’ at unacceptably high levels. New insecticides are urgently needed to address this potential resurgence.

IVCC works with the private sector, in this case the leading the agrochemical companies, funders and academia to support the identification and development of new or repurposed insecticides that are safe to use in public health. Today the product development pipeline has never been stronger but the future success of PDPs relies on sustained, diverse, and flexible funding, a challenge when national governments are seeing their economies shrink drastically because of the COVID pandemic.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCDO) has been a stronger supporter of the PDP model, providing funding alongside the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other governments to advance product innovation and the cost-effective deployment of new resistance beating malaria interventions at scale. In less than two decades IVCC has helped bring to market a number of novel insecticides which have the ability to manage resistance, reduce malaria prevalence and ultimately save thousands of lives. In the UK we should be proud of our collective success in leading the world in so many areas that have led to these intended results and high impacts.

With governments around the world having to restructure and reprioritise overseas aid because of the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s imperative that funding that is made available is directed to where ‘returns’ are meaningful, and which contribute most to saving and improving people’s lives

With a solid track record of innovation and impact, PDPs provide not just one of the most effective ways in which translational research can bring lifesaving products to market but their impact at a local and regional level can, through improved well-being and therefore productivity lay the foundations for not just improved health outcomes but longer term and sustainable economic development and growth.

That benefits us all world-wide, is a proven return on investment through the lens of a public good led by the UK, and the collateral benefits to the UK of sustained excellence, expertise, respect, and competitive reach all being enhanced and secured.

Avoiding any suggestion of special pleading, we should back what we know works and recognise that we need to double down on this proven model of UK world-class excellence in translational research which is always going to be dependent on a mix of public, philanthropic and private funding, including to whom the FCDO allocates its former DFID/ODA funding in these straitened times.