Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Forget Pfizer pitch, UK must unleash power of its public health service

By George Freeman MP, Special to CNN
May 29, 2014 -- Updated 0914 GMT (1714 HKT)
A woman walks outside British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca in Macclesfield, northwest England.
A woman walks outside British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca in Macclesfield, northwest England.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • MP George Freeman says the failed Pfizer bid for Astrazeneca is not a lost opportunity
  • Instead, it ensures a focus on the crusade to make the UK a hub for medicine design
  • Freeman says the UK must look to its public health service to boost research
  • That will ensure the debate continues to be around doing business in the UK

Editor's note: George Freeman was elected to parliament in 2010, after 15 years in biomedical venture capital. Freeman was formerly a director at Merlin Biosciences, chief executive of Amedis Pharmaceuticals, and founder of 4D Biomedical Ltd. In 2011 he became Government Adviser on Life Sciences. This year he became a UK Trade Envoy. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Following AstraZeneca's most recent rejection of Pfizer's bid, many may ask if this is a lost opportunity for British innovation, or the salvation of it?

I think both points of view miss the real story. The key challenge for the UK is not about ownership structure, but about being a hub for the development of 21st-century medicines.

To be sure, most of the UK life science sector will be mightily relieved that Britain is still home to two of the global giants of biomedicine. But Britain must not become complacent about bioscience investment.

To keep them and other companies investing here we need to continue the prime minister's crusade to make the UK the best place in the world for 21st century medicine design.

George Freeman
George Freeman

To understand why, you need to understand the sector. Having worked for fifteen years in the industry -- not for "Big Pharma," but for insurgent biotech companies and charities, who are increasingly the ones discovering most of the new medicines -- the controversy over the proposed merger was fascinating.

Britain must not become complacent about bioscience investment
George Freeman

It highlighted fundamental issues at the heart of the revolution transforming the pharmaceutical industry.

The truth is that "Big Pharma" is failing to develop enough new medicines. Their old business model -- dependent on producing a steady pipeline of expensive "blockbuster" drugs to sell to Western governments -- is broken.

Instead, these companies have now become reliant on the smaller and more innovative biotechs (and increasingly charities) to fill their pipelines with a new world of genetically targeted medicines.

The pharma sector is radically changing, from being all about the discovery of old style drugs through biological research, to the design of personalized and genetically profiled drugs through research based more in hospitals than pharma factories.

Pfizer defends its bid for AstraZeneca

To succeed in this new world of 21st century biomedicine, the UK has to unleash the unique power of its public health service the NHS -- a global powerhouse for modern drugs design.

Huge pharma deal under scrutiny

If we do so, we can deliver huge benefits to NHS patients, slow death rates in key diseases like cancer, reduce our drugs bill by making the UK the fastest and best place in the world to develop, test and prove these new medicines -- which would allow us to pay a discounted rate -- AND kickstart a 21st century life sciences cluster. It's a massive prize.

Pfizer ramps up merger frenzy

That's why I was so pleased when the prime minister invited me to help the UK set out our ground-breaking Life Science Industrial Strategy in 2011, which has been internationally welcomed.

Different companies are responding to this challenge in different ways. AstraZeneca last year electrified the sector by wholeheartedly embracing the Life Science Strategy, embedding its staff in the Cambridge biotech and hospital campus.

Pfizer, meanwhile, is known in the sector as the lead exponent of the M&A model: delivering shareholder returns by acquiring other companies. In either case, the success of the Life Science Strategy was proved when both announced that after closing their respective factory plants in Sandwich and Cheshire, they were moving not to Cambridge, Massachusetts, but Cambridge, UK.

To succeed in this new world of 21st century biomedicine, the UK has to unleash the unique power of its public health service
George Freeman

The fact that these companies are in the UK, despite our becoming in recent decades one of the slowest and lowest priced purchasers of drugs, is testament to the model we have adopted.

The truth is that we need to worry less about who owns these companies -- after all the shareholders in both cases are global, as is the management -- and more about their level of commitment to the UK as a place to develop and sell modern medicines.

We need to be rolling up our sleeves and making sure whoever owns the company has a strong commitment to the UK for the right reasons, namely because it is the best place on earth to develop 21st-century medicines.

Western governments no longer have a right to expect or demand investment. We have to compete and win it by being more entrepreneurial.

The truth is that what really matters is that the UK remains a world-class place to discover and develop new 21st-century medicines. If we get that right, we can be relaxed about where the capital and talent flows from.

Without it, we won't have any takeovers to debate. The very possibility of the takeover was a tribute to the UK as a place where people want to do business.

For the physical and economic health of us all, long may it remain that way.

READ MORE: Pfizer ditches pursuit of AstraZeneca

READ MORE: Pfizer bid reveals British protectionism

WATCH MORE: Pfizer defends its bid

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the George Freeman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
The Business View
Nina dos Santos is a news anchor and correspondent based in London. She is the host of CNN International's show The Business View.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1100 GMT (1900 HKT)
Forget the new black. This is the real black. You can't see it, or figure out its shape, it's the darkest material in the world.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1602 GMT (0002 HKT)
Jibo robot is designed to be an organizer, educator and assist family members. CNN's Maggie Lake met him and says she was impressed with his skills.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1634 GMT (0034 HKT)
With cyberattacks on the rise and here to stay, it's a modern-day challenge for everyone to get smarter about preventing them.
July 15, 2014 -- Updated 2044 GMT (0444 HKT)
Britain will launch the world's first spaceport outside the U.S., with first space tourists blasting off from the UK as early as 2018.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1044 GMT (1844 HKT)
Imagine a skyscraper that cleans the air. You won't have to wait long -- two will soon be built in China.
June 13, 2014 -- Updated 1529 GMT (2329 HKT)
Iraq produces 3.3 million barrels per day and has the world's fourth-largest oil reserves. But the current crisis is putting all this in danger.
June 27, 2014 -- Updated 1527 GMT (2327 HKT)
Who will lead the fractured European Union for the next five years? The question has caused weeks of bickering in already fractured EU.
June 18, 2014 -- Updated 1222 GMT (2022 HKT)
Sandwiched in between Iraq and Syria, Jordan's destiny seems to be one of a constant struggle for survival. John Defterios explains.
June 16, 2014 -- Updated 1314 GMT (2114 HKT)
The gas standoff between Russia and Ukraine could have a knock-on effect on Europe. Explore this map to find out why is the EU nervous.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1058 GMT (1858 HKT)
Bob Mazzer has photographed inside London's Tube network for 40 years. He's captured history.
June 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
The UK capital promotes its tech stars and shows it can compete with Silicon Valley. Here are five companies that pitch to make it big.
June 3, 2014 -- Updated 1029 GMT (1829 HKT)
As debate rages over whether Banksys should be for sale, we direct you to the ones you can still see on the streets.
June 2, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
While Ukraine's fight for freedom gets bloodier by the day and Russia faces the West's cold shoulder, one oligarch is using art to get his message across.
May 29, 2014 -- Updated 1613 GMT (0013 HKT)
Andy McNab says being a psychopath makes us better at business, life and love. Could he be right?
May 30, 2014 -- Updated 2114 GMT (0514 HKT)
Index on Censorship's Jodie Ginsberg argues the "right to be forgotten" decision is too woolly.
May 22, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Russia is at an economic crossroads as business turns its back on the country amid the Ukraine crisis. So what is next?
May 30, 2014 -- Updated 1024 GMT (1824 HKT)
CNN's Nina dos Santos speaks to the mothers of successful children and asks them: What's the secret of bringing up a winner?
ADVERTISEMENT