Covid: How Scotland's life sciences sector is playing a major role in the fight against the virus – Ivan McKee MSP

Over the last six months, we have seen an unprecedented period of uncertainty, but one thing we have been able to count on is the tremendous collective effort across Scotland to respond to the coronavirus crisis.

Scottish manufacturers have produced more than 616 million items of PPE since March (Picture: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)
Scottish manufacturers have produced more than 616 million items of PPE since March (Picture: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

A great deal of recognition should be given to everyone involved in supporting our national response to the pandemic and, as the minister for trade, investment and innovation, I would like to highlight the vital role that the life sciences and manufacturing sectors are playing and thank everyone involved for their dedication and hard work.

From the very beginning of this crisis, these sectors have helped us tackle some of the biggest challenges we have faced. They were central to helping us secure local supply chains, with life science and manufacturing companies across Scotland working with our enterprise agencies and the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland to repurpose product lines and supply vital personal protective equipment (PPE) to frontline workers.

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Transparent face coverings

Since March, Scottish manufacturers have produced more than 616 million items of PPE which have been issued to health and social care sectors across the country and the work continues to ensure resilient local supply chains for the future.

Our manufacturers have also been innovative in finding solutions to barriers faced by certain communities as a result of the need to protect ourselves and others by wearing face coverings. As part of this, they have been working hard to help ensure transparent face coverings that support lip-reading are commercially available, providing an alternative to opaque coverings.

Scottish Enterprise awarded £50,000 of funding to an Edinburgh-based company to support the manufacture of their transparent face coverings, which are now being upgraded to medical-grade transparent masks. These masks will be trialled by the NHS in Scotland, and if successful, may be rolled out more widely to help ensure no-one is put at a disadvantage by the safety measures put in place during the pandemic.

Ivan McKee says Scotland’s life sciences sector will help shape the economy recovery from Covid (Picture: John Devlin)

As part of my role leading engagement with the life sciences sector on behalf of the Scottish government, I published a report highlighting some of the incredible work that has been undertaken within the industry.

This snapshot showed the huge variety of activity undertaken by businesses in Scotland, from the testing work within the Lighthouse Labs, including one in Glasgow University, supported by Thermo Fisher Scientific, to the development of alternative vaccines and crucially important therapeutic treatments by both indigenous and global investors.

Academia and business working together

Through its Scottish Manufacturing Advisory Service, Scottish Enterprise has worked with businesses and the Glasgow Lighthouse Laboratory to streamline processes and increase testing capacity.

Scotland will be home to a new testing ‘mega lab’ set to open in 2021, a real testament to our life sciences capabilities. When fully operational this highly sensitive diagnostic laboratory will process up to 300,000 samples a day, significantly increasing the testing and diagnostic capacity of the country – and is expected to create around 1,800 jobs.

Of course, collaboration is key as highlighted by the partnership approach between academia and industry building on our distinguished track record in drug discovery and development of innovative medicine. Our experienced life sciences company-and-research base is actively involved in many crucial areas of the Covid-19 response.

Universities and businesses across the country are working on a number of critical Covid-19 treatments and research projects, including the University of Dundee which will commence Phase 3 clinical trials of the Janssen Pharmaceuticals vaccine.

Livingston-based specialist vaccine company Valneva entered an agreement with the UK government to supply 60 million doses of a vaccine they are working on. Meanwhile, Stirling-based Symbiosis has signed a deal with global pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca to manufacture and supply a vaccine for use in clinical trials.

Exploring different mechanisms to vaccinate against the virus complements the progress on the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine which is expected to be rolled out in the UK shortly. The research from all these various vaccines will also be useful for combating any future strain.

Strategic recovery plan

Looking forward, I know Scotland’s life sciences community will continue to support our response to Covid-19 and help shape our economic recovery.

I co-chair the industry leadership group Life Sciences Scotland and work closely with co-chair Dave Tudor, managing director of the Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre, to help reinforce the links between industry, the NHS and academia.

Life Sciences Scotland has developed a strategic recovery plan with a clear focus on building on our existing expertise and capabilities. The plan recognises the importance of investing in our existing and future workforce, and the ongoing work with Skills Development Scotland to ensure career opportunities in areas such as gene and cell therapy and vaccine manufacture.

The Scottish government has invested in developing our centres of excellence in order to keep making those ground-breaking discoveries in medical treatments and to attract world-class researchers.

Centres such as the £56 million Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre within the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District are already attracting investment from global industry partners. The Scottish government, via Scottish Enterprise, invested £15 million towards the centre which will play a key role in future pharmaceutical supply chains.

New, good, green jobs

Scotland has also been successful at attracting inward investment, topping the list of the UK’s top destinations for inward investment outside London for the past seven years.

To ensure we continue to build on this success, I recently published an inward investment plan outlining a new strategic approach to building on our strengths and creating 100,000 high-value jobs as part of our national mission to create new jobs, good jobs and green jobs.

The plan highlights opportunity areas where our global competitive strengths lie and where major flows of investment are. It identifies healthtech – technology-enabled healthcare products and services – as a key future growth area.

Scotland’s life sciences sector has had a vital role to play in our initial response to this global pandemic, and will continue to be key to our recovery.

Trade and innovation minister Ivan McKee will be a speaker at the virtual Life Sciences Conference on 3 December. Visit scotsmanlifesciences.co.uk for more details

Ivan McKee is Scottish trade and innovation minister and SNP MSP for Glasgow Provan

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