Dr Jennifer Harris

Clinical trials are an essential part of the research and development (R&D) of new medicines and vaccines, bringing benefits to patients, the NHS and the economy. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the value of clinical trials has become increasingly evident, with research seen as critical to global recovery – refining our public health efforts and enhancing our armoury against COVID-19 and future pandemics.

The pandemic has also significantly impacted the type of clinical trials conducted and how these are designed and delivered. On the positive side, we have seen regulatory flexibilities introduced, digital and remote approaches adopted, and innovative design and delivery models implemented. However, we have also seen the negative effect that a focus on COVID-19 has had on research into other conditions, with efforts to restart and recover activity in areas such as cancer and cardio-metabolic disease varying, depending on the impact of the pandemic on individual nations and healthcare systems.

The UK’s ability to restart clinical research activity has been primarily dictated by capacity within the NHS, which has been focused on managing COVID-19 and frontline care for thousands of patients. The ability to restore its healthcare system will be critical if the UK is to succeed in embedding new and innovative ways of working and growing its capacity to deliver clinical research.

The Government’s UK-wide vision for clinical research delivery puts the NHS and patients front and centre, with the aim to rebuild post-pandemic and create an ecosystem which is globally competitive – one which delivers for UK patients now and in the future. What matters now is the UK’s ability to translate these commitments into action and demonstrable change on the ground. Progress is underway to deliver the vision, with support from the ABPI and the pharmaceutical industry as delivery partners of the Recovery, Resilience and Growth Programme.

Continued partnership with industry will be key to the successful delivery of this vision. Commercial clinical research contributes significant economic benefits, generating an estimated income of £355 million for the NHS in England in 2018/2019. Ensuring that implementation of the vision serves to enhance the commercial clinical research environment would therefore help attract further industry investment, delivering on the Government’s plan for growth and contributing to the health and wealth of the nation.

Demonstrating our potential for growth is the UK’s recent performance in patient recruitment. In 2019, the UK increased its share of patients recruited to global clinical trials, overtaking Italy and equalling Canada with a 2.8% share. In 2020, the UK recruited over 1.3 million participants to clinical research studies supported by the National Institute for Health Research’s Clinical Research Network (NIHR CRN) – the largest number ever to take part in NIHR research, primarily driven by recruitment into COVID-19 research studies.

With NHS reform underway, through the establishment of new Integrated Care Systems, and a vision for how the Government will improve the attractiveness of the life science ecosystem, the UK is well placed to build back better. With Governments around the world supercharging their R&D ecosystems in response to the pandemic, the UK must be at the vanguard of this global transformation, implementing sustainable and transformative changes that support growth, innovation and investment.

This report articulates how the UK can maximise the opportunities that lie ahead to rebuild its clinical research environment and grow its commercial portfolio. By benchmarking the UK’s clinical trial environment relative to global competitors, this report highlights where the UK is competitive and how we are recovering from the pandemic relative to others, making recommendations for the next phase of implementation on the UK-wide vision for clinical research delivery.

The ABPI and the pharmaceutical industry continue to work in partnership with Government and system partners on enhancing the UK life sciences sector and hope this report is a helpful contribution, as we look to implementation of the Life Sciences Vision.

Dr Jennifer Harris
Head of Research Policy
Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry