"Global Britain" is put to the test in global health challenges at this year’s G7 summit

by Maurice Robering

The quaint seaside resort of Carbis Bay in Cornwall will provide the venue for this year’s meeting of the G7 nations, to be hosted by the United Kingdom in June. Against the backdrop of the global struggle through the Covid-19 pandemic, the summit remains an important forum for the leaders of the G7 to agree on common policy positions, which tend to have ripple effects across other nations and international institutions to combat global threats. With this year’s meeting the first face-to-face meeting of the G7 since the start of the pandemic, and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s first meeting with world leaders since the end of the Brexit Transition Period on 31 December, June’s summit serves as the first opportunity to put his plans for a “Global Britain” independent of the EU in motion on the international stage – and the UK’s priorities on common health challenges such as Covid-19 ahead of the G7 offer a strong showcase of this new “Global Britain”.

Of the challenges facing the G7 nations this year, the ongoing pandemic is arguably the most pressing. Therefore, one of the centrepieces of Britain’s agenda for the G7 consists of a set of four key health priorities outlined by Health Secretary Matt Hancock. Welcoming US President Joe Biden’s decision to halt plans for the US to leave the World Health Organization in his landmark speech on the G7, Hancock emphatically rejected “narrow nationalism”, arguing that a global and collaborative approach is needed to tackle current and future threats to public health. It may seem ironic that the Brexit victory in 2016 is seen by many as being won on the basis of the narrow nationalism Matt Hancock rejects, but Hancock’s priorities reflect Johnson’s administration’s aim to weave this “narrow” nationalist Britain into Johnson’s “Global Britain” – Hancock’s health priorities are set up to ensure the economic rewards of global health action feed into UK life sciences.

Britain’s first G7 health priority is dubbed “health security for all”, referring principally to leveraging the UK’s world-leading capabilities in genomic sequencing. Through the creation of a “New Variant Assessment Platform”, these capabilities are to be made available to other countries, enabling them to sequence viral genomes and detect mutations sooner, and will be coupled with Hancock’s second priority: to work with the G7 to standardise and coordinate clinical trials across the world. The third priority points toward to the danger of neglecting the “silent pandemic” of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). To counter this, Hancock pledged to advocate for establishing partnerships between industry, science and governments to spur the development of new antibiotics, as well as for developing global strategies to prevent over-use of existing antibiotics. Finally, given the critical role artificial intelligence (AI) has played in fighting the current pandemic, Britain plans to use the G7 to advocate for the adoption of common data inter-operability standards, as well as the implementation of “guiderails” to provide shared ethical underpinnings for AI.

The first two priorities, leveraging genomic sequencing capabilities and standardising clinical trials, are of highest immediate relevance to tackling the current pandemic. Britain has expertise in genomic sequencing, having sequenced over half of all Covid-19 genome sequences submitted to the global database. Crucially, this helped Britain identify and subsequently inform its neighbours about a new mutation of the virus originating in the county of Kent. In the face of new mutations of the virus beginning to crop up across the globe, the UK’s “New Variant Assessment Platform” is intended to make Britain’s genomic sequencing capabilities available to countries worldwide. Though great scientific strides across the world have aided vaccine development, Hancock expressed frustration at the differences in trial structures across the world, which he says only lead to complications and delays. In light of this, Britain aims to work with the G7 to standardise and coordinate clinical trials across the world.

Self-interest is not absent from the UK’s nominally globalist strategy with regards to genomic sequencing and standardised trials. In the wake of Brexit, the UK is facing up to the task of re-establishing its position in an ostensibly shifting and highly competitive global pecking order. In March 2020, Chancellor Rishi Sunak placed the life sciences at the centre of record domestic R&D investment; Sunak is set to match this in this year’s Budget with a new Life Sciences Investment Programme to attract overseas investment. In conjunction with budgetary programmes, making its viral genomic sequencing capabilities available to the wider international community would place the UK’s life sciences sector squarely at the centre of the global fight against Covid-19, with global advances feeding into domestic life sciences growth.

Moreover, whilst standardising clinical trials may end up shortening time-to-market, they also help establish a level playing field. This may end up benefitting the UK as it would minimise the risk of companies exploiting regulatory arbitrage and conducting trials in countries they would perceive to be more attractive. Thus, standardised trials, in combination with Britain’s leading genomic capabilities, could work to cement the UK’s presently advanced genomic R&D capacity, while repositioning the UK as a relatively attractive centre of wider life sciences research and investment.

Despite the challenges facing the G7 nations in 2021 and beyond, with Joe Biden now the head of the UK’s closest ally the conditions for multilateral action are better now than they have been in previous years. The UK’s “Global Leadership” aims are not short on ambition, and nor are Hancock’s global health priorities, which are designed to bolster UK life sciences, a priority sector for the UK post-Brexit. To achieve both Hancock’s stated global objectives and the underlying domestic priorities, the UK’s prospective G7 health programme will form an eye-catching part of this year’s summit and attempt to set the tone for concerted global health action as the Covid-19 pandemic endures.


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