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Can Mandy save the life sciences industry?


Reflector wonders whether the UK government's business supremo can work his magic on European pharma and biotech.

At the end of January, Peter Mandelson — also known, not always affectionately, as Mandy — was locked in top-level talks with drug firms and biotech companies in a bid to rescue them from imminent demise. His engagement and enthusiasm offered an echo of his energetic championing of biotech in the job he was doing in Brussels, as European Commissioner for Trade, until only a few months ago.

The new salvage campaign is being mounted in the face of a global financial crisis, a closed window for the initial public offerings that have nurtured innovation for the last decade and more, and dwindling interest — and even a loss of confidence — among venture capital companies. The urgency has been underlined by a new report commissioned by the bioscience industry — The Review and Refresh of Bioscience 2015 — which sets out ambitious proposals in the shape of tax reform, cutbacks in red tape, and a technology-friendly approach to healthcare.

Mandelson, now Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform (and a member of the UK House of Lords), was the key figure at a self-styled 'life sciences summit' in London on 27 January — with supporting roles played by UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and ministers responsible for finance, health and science. His reputation as an outspoken advocate of enterprise goes before him — and pharmaceutical executives across Europe, as well as around the UK, are eagerly awaiting developments. What happens in the UK — still one of the most enterprise-friendly countries in the EU, and still blessed with huge assets and potential in life sciences in general and pharmaceutical expertise in particular — is significant for the industry across the entire European bloc.

The question in everyone's mind, however, is whether Mandy's gift for controversy and for putting his finger on problems is matched by an ability to deliver results. Eighteen months ago he surprised — even shocked — many of his European Commission colleagues by coming out unambiguously in favour of removing some of the many barriers to biotechnology development. His clarion call for science to take the place of politics in regulatory decisions was greeted with delight by European pharmaceutical industry executives.

But this month, as Mandy was meeting UK drug chiefs in London, the European biotech industry association in Brussels was issuing yet another call for European recognition of the neglected merits of biotechnology. Mandy's words were strong, but the effects have been — so far, at any rate — weak. Sceptics also remember how tough Mandy talked in the run-up to critical world trade talks — and how total the failure was in the end. Not entirely Mandelson's fault, of course, but the contrast between words and deeds was notable throughout his term as a Commissioner in Brussels.

So Mandy now has another chance to win an unstained reputation as a defender of pharmaceutical enterprise and innovation and European pharmaceutical executives will be even more relieved if he pulls it off than Mandy himself will be.

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