As the fast-growing Omicron wave threatened the livelihoods of huge numbers of people working in the hospitality sector, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak turned his back and flew to San Francisco for meetings with cancer test start up GRAIL and other biotech/life sciences companies.
Although Ministers are supposed to make public the record of their meetings, Sunak and the Treasury have failed to say who he met and what was discussed in San Francisco. So here’s CK999’s best guess.
CK999 reported in May 2020 that the UK government had taken advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to hastily build a privatised testing/contact tracing system, outsourced to multinational companies without going through the normal tendering process. This sidestepped existing NHS and Public Health England services, to the detriment of Covid-19 infection control.
The UK government is rapidly extending the privatisation of NHS diagnostics for other diseases and conditions too.
It is doing this through giving US biosciences and bioinformatics corporations access to NHS patients and to our treasure trove of 70+years of medical records for the entire UK population – without giving us a say in this.
GRAIL’s cancer test, Galleri, is currently being trialled by NHS England.
The Galleri test is claimed to detect more than 50 types of cancer before symptoms appear.
According to Sir Harpal Kumar (a McKinsey alumnus and former bigwig at Cancer Research UK and the Papworth Trust) who was appointed President of GRAIL Europe in 2020,
“We’re delighted to partner with the NHS to support the NHS Long Term Plan for earlier cancer diagnosis, and we are eager to bring our technology to people in the UK as quickly as we can.”
But according to the Galleri website, Grail’s cancer test has not been cleared or approved in the USA by the Food and Drug Administration. The website describes the “NHS-Galleri trial” as
“a validation study of Galleri’s clinical and economic performance”.https://grail.com/clinical-expertise/
140K middle aged NHS patients are taking part in the trial, which is being run by Cancer Research UK and King’s College London Cancer Prevention Trials Unit, in partnership with NHS England and GRAIL, with the support of eight NHS Cancer Alliances across England.
On the back of the development of GRAIL’s Galleri multi-cancer early detection blood test, in September 2020 the US biosciences giant Illumina announced an $8bn acquisition of Grail.
The deal is for Illumina to buy out investors, including Amazon.com Inc founder Jeff Bezos, to regain control of the company it spun out five years ago.
Illumina expects the market value of the cancer test to be $75 billion in 2035.
US giant life sciences company Illumina pays former Prime Minister Cameron as adviser
Illumina has employed former Tory Prime Minister David Cameron as its “adviser” since 2017, when he became a consultant and chairman of the company’s international advisory board after quitting as Prime Minister in 2016 after the Brexit referendum.
This information only emerged when Cameron listed Illumina as a ‘commercial interest’ in a statement issued following revelations of his lobbying of ministers on behalf of Lex Greensill. Cameron made £7M from his employment by Greensill. It is not known how much Illumina has paid him.
The Times then reported that in 2019 Cameron had lobbied Health Secretary Matt Hancock to accept Illumina’s invitation from Jay Flatley, Illumina’s executive chairman at the time, to attend a genomics summit in Hampshire. The Conference, co-hosted by Illumina and Genomics England, coincided with a £200m expansion in the UK government’s genomics sequencing programme.
A week after Hancock attended the summit, Genomics England – a company owned by the Department of Health and Social Care – awarded Illumina a £123 million genetic-sequencing contract without competition.
The contract was a follow-up to the 100,000 Genomes Project, instigated by Cameron when he was Prime Minister with the aim of sequencing that number of genomes from NHS patients with cancer and rare diseases, and their families. (More info in next section, below).
The £123m follow-up contract, awarded as a “Negotiated procedure without prior publication”, was to set up a clinical Whole Genome Sequencing service in the NHS.
Genomics England’s description of the procurement for this service justified the non-competitive contract award to Illumina,
“Genomics England had a contractual relationship with Illumina Cambridge Ltd for Whole Genome Sequencing (‘WGS’) Services for the 100 000 genomes project and is about to embark on supporting the operation of a clinical WGS service in the NHS.
“In doing so, the Contracting Authority has determined through considerable due diligence and assessment of the options available, the most appropriate course of action is to issue a transparency notice in the Official Journal (OJEU), for a WGS Service contract with Illumina Cambridge Ltd for reasons of technical skills required being limited to one supplier.”
As Prime Minister, Cameron instigated Illumina/Genomics England public/private partnership to sequence 100K genomes of NHS patients
The 100,000 Genomes Project was instigated by David Cameron as a public/private partnership between Ilumina and Genomics England.
The deal was based on the unique value of the NHS to biosciences companies, by virtue of its inclusion of the whole UK population. This, together with the 70+ year medical records of the whole UK population, is the UK government’s big lure to US life sciences corporations. Basically, they are selling access to NHS patients to global corporations – without giving us a say in this.
Illumina, which was paid to carry out the sequencing on behalf of Genomics England – since its sequencing instruments dominate the market – said,
“Key to the genome sequencing effort is the public-private partnership formed between Illumina and Genomics England – the entity created by the UK Department of Health to run the country’s 100,000 Genomes Project.
“While many developed countries are working on genomic medicine initiatives, no other has the reach and impact of the 100,000 Genomes Project, recruiting participants through care and treating them through routine channels due to the unique structure of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). It’s currently the largest national sequencing project of its kind in the world.”
It looks as if Illumina’s services for whole genome sequencing for the 100,000 Genomes Project were secured in a deal worth around £78million.
In turn, Illumina was to invest around £162million into the work in England over four years, creating new knowledge and jobs in the field of genome sequencing.
At the time, Genomics England said,
“The investment will not only help the life science industry to thrive, but potentially create opportunities for talented UK scientists to lead the world. It will also pave the way for all NHS patients to eventually benefit from this exciting new technology.
“This research puts the NHS at the forefront of scientific discovery. This is in line with the Prime Minister’s vision for the NHS to be the first mainstream health service in the world to offer genomic medicine as part of routine care.
Illumina’s investment in the 100,000 Genomes project included the construction of Illumina’s new headquarters for Europe, Middle East, and Africa in the Hinxton campus at Granta Park, Cambridge, where Illumina’s technology sequenced the UK’s 100,000 Genomes Project in the new Olgivie Building.
In addition to that sequencing contract for the 100,000 Genomes Project, in 2016 Genomics England gave Illumina a bioinformatics contract to improve and automate genome interpretation.
In March 2021 Cameron met vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi to discuss genetic sequencing, and Illumina was given further contracts with Public Health England worth up to £870,000.
Cameron’s meeting with Zahawi on behalf of Illumina raises further questions about the regulation and monitoring of lobbying activities by former Government employees. The records released by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy do not declare Cameron’s commercial interest in the firm – while the minutes of the meeting are limited to a five-word sentence.
UK subsidiary Illumina Cambridge Ltd is deeply entrenched in the NHS and UK Health Security Agency (formerly Public Health England), as well as other public sector bodies
Bidstats shows 67 Illumina contracts for 2021. (Although the “Illumina” listed as a provider for the £10bn Increasing Capacity Framework is a Grimsby Small/Medium Enterprise called Illumina Diagnostics Ltd – not the US biosciences giant.)
Illumina’s base in the UK is Illumina Cambridge Ltd – created in 2007 through Illumina’s $600m acquisition of a Cambridge University spin-out company, Solexa Ltd. This is basically where Illumina got its genome sequencing technology from.
The company was set up in 1998 by two Cambridge University chemists, Dr Shankar Balasubramanian and Dr David Klenerman. It was launched as Intercede 1356 Ltd and renamed within 2 months to Solexa Ltd.
Solexa’s aim was to read the process of DNA copying a genome at such a speed that genome sequencing could be scalable and low-cost. By 2006, Solexa had launched its first sequencer, and a year later Illumina bought the company for $600million.
Since then, Balasubramanian says that Illumina has taken Solexa’s technology and improved on it “ten thousand fold”, increasing the speed and reducing the cost of genome sequencing so that,
“Today, the human genome can be sequenced in less than one day at a cost of less than $1,000. This has effectively ‘democratised’ sequencing to the point that even quite small labs can have a bench-top DNA sequencer.”
Illumina also runs an accelerator programme for start ups at both its research and development sites in San Francisco Bay Area and Cambridge, UK.
Dante Labs grabs some Illumina/Genomics England fairy dust but screws up Covid-19 PCR testing
In July 2021 Dante Labs – a “global leader in genomics and precision medicine” with its UK headquarters in Cambridge, currently under investigation that it may be breaking the law in relation to the private provision of PCR tests – appointed the then Illumina Chief Operating Officer Bob Ragusa as a Board Member “to support the execution of its global integrated precision medicine strategy.”
In October 2021, Illumina appointed Bob Ragusa as CEO of GRAIL Inc.
Dante Labs brags about being,
“A global genomic data company building and commercialising a new class of transformative health and longevity applications based on whole genome sequencing and AI. Our assets include one of the largest private genome databases with research consent, a proprietary software platform designed to unleash the power of genomic data at scale and proprietary processes which enable an industrial approach to genomic sequencing.”
Dante Labs also trumpeted its:
“research laboratory in Wolverhampton, [where] Dante Labs supported the UK Government’s urgent requirement to scale-up a high-capacity, highly automated testing solution for Covid-19, including infected patients as well as those with antibodies. Dante Labs was able to deliver by leveraging existing technology that had been developed for whole genome sequencing.”
Set up hastily in May 2020 by Andrea Riposati, CEO of Dante Labs, the Immensa Health Clinic Ltd lab in Wolverhampton was awarded a £119m Test and Trace contract in the summer of 2020, despite having only been set up 3 months earlier and having no experience of PCR tests.
The Dept of Health & Social Care gave assurances that the Immensa Lab was fully accredited to perform its PCR test analysis work, but the UK’s independent accreditation service, UKAS says that neither Immensa Health Clinics Ltd nor its sister company, Dante Labs, had ever been accredited by the service, and that it had informed the Department of Health that statements suggesting otherwise were incorrect.
PCR testing labs set up in haste in response to Covid19 are not UKAS accredited, are not staffed by Health and Care Professions Council-registered BMS staff, and are reputed to have poor or non-existent quality processes, atrocious training and bad management.
This is what happens when NHS services are privatised without open and accountable tendering and contract award processes.
In October 2021, Dante’s Wolverhampton research lab, Immensa Health Clinic Ltd was shut by the government and came under investigation for the 40k+ false negative PCR test results it recently gave to people, mostly in the South West.
The shutdown was a month after the UK Health Security Agency was alerted to an unusual spike in cases. The shutdown might never have happened if James Beecher at Stroud Coronavirus Community Response hadn’t spotted on the 18th September that data indicated a possible PCR lab testing issue. On 25th September he started advising people reporting inconsistent results in the Stroud Coronavirus Community Response group to trust their positive lateral flow results because it was likely it was the PCRs that were false (falsely negative). He emailed the Department of Health and Social Care on the 30th. It wasn’t until 12th October that the Immensa Lab was shut.
Public health officials in the West Country confirmed that the Immensa testing had led to a 328 per cent spike in cases. Professor Deepti Gurdasani, a senior lecturer in epidemiology at Queen Mary University, has estimated that the false negatives may have caused up to 200,000 further Covid-19 infections, and more than 1,000 avoidable deaths.
The Good Law Project is taking the Department of Health and Social Care to court for a Judicial Review of their failure to set up and enforce a system to check private testing labs are working properly, on the grounds that this breaches both ‘their duty to protect life under the NHS Act of 2006 and the human rights of the thousands of people affected’.
Immensa Lab was not Dante Labs’ only contract with so-called NHS Test and Trace. Dante Labs, which “has a partnership with NHS Test and Trace” , took over the Charnwood Campus “lighthouse lab” in Loughborough, Leicestershire in August 2021, where it is carrying out Covid-19 testing and sequencing.
The revolving door between Genomics England and US corporations is a busy place.
Nor was the appointment of Illumina’s Bob Ragusa to Dante Labs’ Board the company’s only head hunting exercise in 2021. In May that year Dante Labs announced the recruitment to its Cambridge UK office of three Illumina hotshots who have also been involved in the development and acceleration of Genomics England.
Paul Jones, Simon Partridge and Christian Bourne joined the Company’s Executive Team “as part of its mission to enable faster, more effective population genomics programmes globally.” They will drive Dante Labs’ clinical, research, industry engagement and economic development agendas for large-scale national programmes around the world.
Paul Jones was previously the Global Head of Population Genomics at Illumina and before that, he was CEO of Genomics Enterprises at Genomics England. Simon Partridge was Global Market Development Lead for Population Genomics at Illumina and was formerly Acting CEO of Genomics Enterprises at Genomics England. Christian Bourne worked for seven years at Illumina, where he was instrumental in creating the ISO:15189 accredited lab that delivered the 100,000 genomes for the Genomics England programme.
Why is schmoozing California biosciences corporations Rishi Sunak’s business, and not Health Secretary Sajid Javid’s?
The growth of the life sciences industry is key to the UK government’s post-Brexit economic and international trade strategy. This requires inward investment into the UK, with the NHS as a key lure to international life sciences companies and their investors.
In the 2021 Autumn Budget, Rishi Sunak launched a £1.4bn fund to attract more overseas investment, with a particular focus on electric vehicles and life sciences.
£354m of this Global Britain Investment Fund is to to boost investment in life sciences manufacturing, including preparing for future pandemics. The Guardian reported that as part of the package, Sunak would outline plans to attract science and tech talent into Britain.
“A talent network team will work with UK businesses and other research institutions to pinpoint skills gaps, and offer support to skilled workers who want to move here from overseas universities, innovation centres and research institutions. This will launch first in San Francisco and Boston in the US next year.”
Sunak is also aiming to make the London stock market more attractive to “unicorn” companies – worth £1bn or more. His plan is to allow owners to maintain more control of their businesses when private start ups go public by selling shares on the London Stock Exchange.
In November 2020 he ordered a review of this process.
Based on this review, the March 2021 report by former EU commissioner Lord Hill recommended that entrepreneurs should be able to retain greater control of their companies, as Sunak wanted. His report proposed to do this by formalising the creation of dual-class share structures in the premium listing segment of the London Stock Exchange. So some shares would have more voting rights than others.
Allowing a ‘premium’ listing in London to companies with dual-class share structures – of the kind popular with the US tech sector – would mean they could join indices like the FTSE 100, if they are big enough. Who knows why this matters? Apparently membership is considered a mark of business prestige.
Lord Hill’s proposed rule change did not go down well with some investors, who warned it would curb shareholder rights and make it harder for investors to influence corporate behaviour on issues such as environment, social and governance (ESG).
But Sky News reported that Chris Cummings, chief executive of trade body the Investment Association, welcomed the report as an important first step to,
“help re-energise capital markets and attract high-growth, innovative companies to set up, list, and grow their business operations in the UK, providing high value jobs that will benefit the economy”.
The drive to attract investment into life sciences companies via a post-Brexit London stock market seems to extend to the government’s proposed sale of its stake in the public/private Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre.
This follows Oxford Nanopore’s barnstorming flotation in September 2021 on the London Stock Exchange. The genomics company, valued at £3.4bn, saw its shares rocket by nearly 45% – putting a valuation on the business of almost £5bn. This was the best-ever first day performance for a company of this size on the London Stock Exchange.
According to Sky News reporter Ian King, the Oxford Nanopore flotation was,
“a ringing endorsement of the London stock market as a home for growing life sciences and technology businesses.”
Redacted Treasury Minutes, reported by The Independent, show that Grail did meet with Mr Sunak as part of his discussions with US private healthcare leaders. Four other early-stage American healthcare firms attended the meeting, with most working in the elderly care sector. The companies are social care firms Honor and Unite Us, which both connect those in need of care with carers, healthcare data firm Komodo Health, and health insurance firm Devoted Health, which specialises in selling health insurance to pensioners. Apart from Grail, the companies told Rishi Sunak they were not interested in expanding into the UK.
Featured image: raul2010/Creative Commons