As I wheeled my 88-year-old mother into the village hall this week to receive her Covid vaccine I felt, for the first time since the plague reached Britain last March, that something positive was really happening. It remains early days, of course. The vaccines could be defective. The virus’s mutations might outsmart them. The supplies might fail. But still … the fact that there is a choice of vaccines, and that Britain is several weeks ahead of comparable countries, prompts thoughts about how science, business and government can co-operate.
I think back to my almost accidental involvement in a story in 2014. At the end of April that year, I got a call from John Casey, an old friend and a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. He had been talking, he said, to Sir Alan Fersht and Professor Rob Miller, both great scientists in his college. They were worried by Pfizer’s attempt to take over the Anglo-Swedish company AstraZeneca.
They questioned the British policy of not interfering in foreign takeovers: “Good technology networks take decades to build but can be easily destroyed.” They feared that Pfizer, seeking tax advantages and short-term shareholder rewards, would strip away the knowledge base AstraZeneca had built up with Cambridge University. Could I write about it in this newspaper?
As Dr Casey put it with embarrassing truthfulness in an email to Prof Miller: “Charles Moore doubts this is the sort of thing he can do well, since he doesn’t know about science”. He added, however: “He thinks this is something his paper ought to cover.” My suggested solution was that distinguished scientists should write a letter to the Telegraph, and we should make it news.
This duly happened, led by Fersht and Miller. Their argument was not against foreign takeovers as such: many small British companies bought by bigger US ones thrived, they said. The problem arose in the Pfizer case: “It is essential for the scientific future of the UK and its technological base that we have a pharmaceutical industry that is committed to work with UK universities and research scientists … We scientists need AstraZeneca. So does the UK.”
Fersht and Miller had direct personal experience. Sir Alan, a globally renowned pioneer in fighting disease through protein engineering, had been able to advance his Medical Research Council project in the early Nineties with support from AstraZeneca’s precursor, ICI, which funded four key lab positions. Later, when AstraZeneca emerged from ICI’s break-up, it wanted greater research interaction with Cambridge scientists. By 2014, as the takeover bid loomed, it was moving its headquarters to Cambridge. Its greenfield site was next to the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, which has won 12 Nobel Prizes shared between 16 individuals.
For his part, Prof Miller, who runs the Whittle Laboratory in Cambridge, appreciated the comparable advantages coming from Whittle’s decades-long association with Rolls-Royce. The partnership gave the scientists “complete intellectual freedom” (as opposed to forcing them to bend to commercial demands) but also “access to Rolls-Royce’s strategy at the highest level”. Protected from takeover by the government’s “golden share”, due to its military applications, the company could take a long enough view to create what Prof Miller calls “deep technology networks”. Even before the threat to AstraZeneca arose, he had been publicly arguing the wider cultural point about nurturing scientific ideas. He believed that these networks are Britain’s best way of crossing what scientists call “the Valley of Death” – the place where brilliant primary research is not translated into product.
The Telegraph letter appeared in early May 2014, with surprisingly dramatic effect. Until then, there had been little public attention paid to the takeover. Many scientists had held back, perhaps anxious that criticism of Pfizer might starve their future research of money. That hesitation was itself a symptom of potential trouble. Now, however, there was safety in numbers. Scores of well-known colleagues piled in, adding their signatures online.
According to Pascal Soriot – then, as now, the chief executive of AstraZeneca – the rumpus came at a key moment. Dragged home from a holiday by the Pfizer bid, he flew into a gloomy situation. Takeover artists and lawyers surrounded him with arguments why AstraZeneca should accept the offer. The letter appeared in this paper the following morning. Mr Soriot felt emboldened to fight back.
Opinion began to move. One Boris Johnson, at that time Mayor of London, fretted publicly that Pfizer might not be sufficiently committed to research in Britain: “I don’t think politicians can be entirely aloof from this.” Within three weeks, Pfizer had dropped the bid. Although the Telegraph letter had implied that government should intervene, this did not actually happen; there had been enough shift in shareholder mood for Pfizer to back off.
Nearly seven years on, where are we now? If you take the train from London to Cambridge and look to the right as you approach the city, you will see what is known as the “Bio-medical campus” – the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, the Royal Papworth Hospital and the AstraZeneca HQ and global research centre are almost hugger-mugger. AstraZeneca has more than 200 research connections with Cambridge academics. It has further developed its university networks – hence the key vaccine partnership with BioMedica, a company spun out of Oxford University.
As for Whittle in Cambridge, it works not only with Rolls-Royce, but also with Mitsubishi, Siemens and now Dyson. During the pandemic, it has put its “rapid technology development teams” on to ventilator work. Prof Miller’s own current work is on zero-carbon flight. He is also raising £24.6 million for a new, extended Whittle lab supporting aerospace start-ups.
In the scientists’ view, Britain is in a much better place than it would have been if AstraZeneca had been taken over. It is not that Pfizer is a “bad” company. After all, its vaccine, developed with BioNtech, seems to work. But they welcome the fact that the British Government was free and bold enough to buy large amounts of different vaccines. (In passing, I feel one should defend Kate Bingham, who headed the vaccine taskforce and used her business links established over 30 years to make quick arrangements with Pfizer. Last November, she attracted media hostility for her “irregular” methods. Now that they have got things done, her methods look pretty good. Not for nothing did Winston Churchill, during the war, press a gang of “irregulars” into service.)
Fersht and Miller welcome the competition. The Pfizer/BioNtech jab is more complicated and expensive, but innovative – “a different type of vaccine altogether”, says Sir Alan. Oxford/AstraZeneca’s more economical one is what he calls “more classical and more typically British”. It is a great benefit to have both and, indeed, to have the luxury that the failure of a third vaccine – Imperial’s – to find a commercial industrial partner, can be borne.
These lessons ought to help the future British relationship between government, business and science. In this week of change across the Atlantic, Sir Alan brandishes a letter, written by Joe Biden a few days before he took office, to Eric Lander, president of the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard. It sets out five questions for scientists, saying: “Science and technology have flourished in the United States because of a rich ecosystem of people, policies, and institutions. This ecosystem must be nurtured and refreshed to succeed in a rapidly changing world.” It would seem to be a good moment to enrich that ecosystem here too.