Pharmaceutical research in the United Kingdom faces a slow death if the new National Institute for Clinical Excellence turns out to be a red-tape garotte, leading academics have warned.
Amid the row over whether Glaxo Wellcome's flu vaccine Relenza should be made available on the NHS this winter, many researchers agreed the national climate towards new pharmaceuticals was getting increasingly chilly.
Any attempt to move research investment away from the UK would have a huge impact on university departments and schools of pharmacology and could cost Britain its current lead.
Sandy Florence, dean of the University of London school of pharmacy, said: "If companies feel the government is not giving them a fair deal, why should they invest in British universities? Because we probably get more money from industry than from the research councils, we're naturally very concerned."
A new drug's journey from the laboratory bench to general release to the public already takes up to 15 years of safety and efficacy trials and testing. For those products referred to it by the Department of Health, Nice adds an additional layer of assessment to ensure they represent sufficient value for money for the NHS to prescribe.
However, the institute's first big decision is widely predicted to recommend that Frank Dobson, the health secretary, should not allow the prescription of Relenza until further evidence of its efficacy among elderly people is presented. This has sent a shudder through an industry that is increasingly touchy about what it sees as unnecessary government interference biting into its revenue.
While the UK counts for just 6 per cent of the company's market, problems at home can have a devastating impact on sales abroad, which are vital if the level of investment in the original research is to be justified.
Sir Richard Sykes, chairman of Glaxo Wellcome, told BBC Radio 4 that pharmaceutical companies would look to move abroad if the environment in the UK continued to be adverse, a message endorsed by other firms.
David Woolfson, professor of pharmaceutics at the Queen's College, Belfast, said: "If the initial licencing process declares a drug is safe and efficacious, to my mind it is wrong for another judgement to later declare that it isn't. Companies may start to concentrate on markets where they feel the environment is more positive and we may see a gradual drift in their investments away from the UK."
Howard Stevens, professor of drug delivery at the University of Strathclyde, said: "The knock-on effect for our research in the bio-medical area could be colossal - virtually all my research means come from links with the pharmaceutical industry."
Anne-Toni Rodgers, spokeswoman for Nice, said: "I'm sure that if a company got a positive outcome we would be heralded for promoting new technology."
Some academics felt the situation would have to deteriorate significantly before any effect was felt in the UK. Peter Noyce, professor of pharmacy practice at the University of Manchester, said the firms would continue to set up labs in the UK to take advantage of a relatively cheap supply of well-trained scientists capable of sometimes brilliant innovation.
Opinion, page 16