United Kingdom

ALEX BRUMMER: Pharma's shot in the arm

Long before Covid crept out of Wuhan a year ago, Britain's life sciences companies were making the case for fast-tracking approvals at the Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

With the departure of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) from the UK to the Netherlands there was opportunity for the MHRA to be more activist and displace it as the go-to institution on this side of the Atlantic. To be the gateway to new treatments.

This would encourage the UK's well developed biotech sector, research universities and big pharma, in the shape of Astrazeneca and Glaxosmithkline, to bring to market more quickly compounds, such as a cancer-combatting immunology drugs.

Pharma boost: Among the reasons why vaccine development in the pandemic has been so much swifter than in the past is new technologies 

By conducting a rolling and concurrent analysis of data, as the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine was undergoing trials, the MHRA has been able to provide emergency approval in super-quick time.

The benefits could well be a faster roll-out of vaccinations in Britain and an earlier chance to recharge economic output. 

The currently Amsterdam-based European agency declared that its longer approval process – likely to be delayed until December 29 – is safer. 

It is hard to believe that an agency as independent as the MHRA would cut corners if its scientists, lawyers and technicians felt there was any risk.

Hopefully, it will also find it possible for the Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine, developed on more traditional lines than Pfizer's, to be ushered to the finish line rapidly.

There has been carping about Astra's confusing reporting of the data. That hasn't been helpful. 

It also should be noted that whichever of the reported metrics are used, they are all way above the 50 per cent efficacy rate which historically has been the starting block for vaccine approval.

Among the reasons why vaccine development in the pandemic has been so much swifter than in the past is new technologies. 

Britain's Deep Mind (unfortunately snaffled up by Google owner Alphabet) is best known for how its artificial intelligence (AI) can beat all-comers in games such as Go.

The magazine Nature has disclosed how Deep Mind is using AI in biology and is able to predict protein structures from amino-acid sequences in a technology which could transform life sciences. 

The new technique, Alpha Fold, could displace existing time-consuming and labour-intensive tasks.

Being outside the European Union does not appear to be troubling British innovation just yet.

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Security lapse

It is just as well that security firm G4S has so far shown no signs of hoisting the white flag as it comes under siege from Canada's Garda World and US rival Allied Universal.

No sooner had Garda, backed by private equity group BC Partners, raised its bid from 190p per share to 235p than the stock raced ahead 7.4 per cent, to 246p, suggesting this battle, which is scheduled to climax before Christmas, is far from over.

Putting to one side whether overseas ownership of G4S is a good or bad thing (no one will be surprised that I am in the latter camp) there are other issues to consider.

The way in which the G4S share price has moved since the first informal offer of 145p in June to where it is now shows how opportunistic Garda's foot-in-the-mouth chief executive Stephan Cretier has been.

As a vaccine escape from Covid and a UK-EU trade agreement become closer, the more foolish it would be for G4S chairman John Connolly and his board to roll over and take the money. 

There has been a 19 per cent lift in values in the outsourcing sector since Garda made its 190p bid, and sterling also has moved against it.

Anyone closely monitoring the Covid economy will note that there is one common factor among all the companies which have come a cropper. 

The story – from the AA, to Saga, Debenhams and property outfit Intu – is the same. All were overloaded with debt.

Turning G4S into a debt time-bomb in such uncertain times would be insanity.

Helping a little

Tesco has been dragged by the court of public opinion into recognition that accepting £585million of business rates relief while paying a £315million dividend is not a good look.

By acknowledging an error, it put pressure on Sainsbury's, Morrisons and Asda owners and others, who might be less able to afford such a gesture. Morrisons was first to crack.The others won't be far behind.

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