Could ‘health clusters’ help the life science and pharmaceutical sectors boost UK’s resilience?

Regional Director in Industry at WSP, Richard Williams, explores the benefits of grouping key academic, health and industrial organisations in strategic locations...

As with the rest of the UK, we at WSP are grateful for the unprecedented, collaborative Government and industry response to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In a time of deep anxiety, it is heart-warming to see so many people and businesses stepping up to take on everything from delivering vital supplies in local communities to manufacturing much-needed ventilators.

As strategic consultants to clients across the pharmaceutical and life science industries, our minds naturally turn to the future: how can these sectors best develop and manufacture the vaccines, diagnostic tests and equipment we will need to lead us out of this crisis? How can they set themselves up to be ready to rapidly develop, manufacture and distribute vaccines, treatments and technology for a future pandemic?

Building on existing expertise

We believe that ‘health clusters’ - grouping together key academic, health and industrial organisations in strategic locations - could hold the answer. Mirroring the approach of net zero industrial clusters in the Government’s industrial strategy, it would involve siting specialist laboratories and manufacturing facilities around existing centres of expertise – such as teaching hospitals and universities.

Locations for such a cluster might include:

  • Cambridge – already home to a world-renowned teaching hospital, a biomedical research centre and AstraZeneca’s global headquarters
  • Oxford - already home to the Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovations Centre
  • Birmingham and the West Midlands – home to research establishments (Warwick Manufacturing Group and the Manufacturing Technology Group) and a diverse manufacturing base
  • Other options with regional concentration of research facilities, manufacturing and industry could include Manchester and the North West, Glasgow and South Wales

Resilient, regional and productive

Establishing health clusters around the country would provide resilience if one area were particularly badly hit by a future pandemic and the workforce infected. It would also support the Government’s levelling-up agenda – unleashing the potential of the nascent expertise and businesses in these areas. Moreover, it offers an ideal opportunity to establish the UK as a centre for high-value vaccine and health technology manufacturing, in the same way that it already is for hi-tech sectors such as Formula 1 motor racing.

What’s more, there is potential for this approach to help tackle the UK’s productivity problem. In our recent Productive Places report we looked at how the design and planning of cities and communities can improve productivity. In the report, we highlighted analysis from the Centre for Cities that showed how places that offer access to many high-skilled workers or a network of high-skilled businesses are more likely to attract investment from more productive, innovation-focused firms. Establishing health clusters could help fuel this virtuous circle.

Becoming Future Ready

Above all, establishing health clusters will ensure the UK is prepared – potentially in time for manufacturing a Coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine at scale, but certainly for a future pandemic. At WSP, we call this being Future Ready and we work with clients to bring clarity and vision to the complex challenges they face in preparing for the future – whether that means the impact of climate change or the shock of a pandemic.

Growing future-ready health clusters will require a collaborative effort and detailed master planning to answer questions such as:

  • How can we get the right organisations involved – including companies such as our client Thermo Fisher Scientific, which is manufacturing Coronavirus (COVID-19) diagnostic kits?
  • How can we get large-scale vaccine manufacturing expertise to relocate back to the UK from countries such as the Netherlands?
  • How can we ensure supply lines of materials - such as the huge quantity of eggs used to manufacture vaccines in bulk – are treated as critical infrastructure and kept open in a time of crisis?
  • How can we boost our sanitary resilience by anticipating, developing and manufacturing the next technologies, equipment and vaccines we will need for future global health crises?

With the United Nations describing the Coronavirus (COVID-19) as the greatest test the world has faced since the second world war, minds are understandably focussed on the immediate future. Yet we believe it’s vital to also think ahead, and that the idea of developing health clusters to ensure the UK is resilient to future pandemics deserves serious consideration now.

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