Today
Fri 7 May 2021

Sam Bright reports on the disruption, time and cost suffered by one mid-sized company before and after the UK’s formal departure from the European Union

If you live in Europe and you are allergic to the grass in your back garden, or your grandma’s new cat, you will find the services of Allergy Therapeutics very useful. Indeed, you might even use one of its products.

The Worthing-based firm produces vaccines for dozens of different allergies and does most of its business with EU countries, its largest market being Germany.

A mid-sized firm, Allergy Therapeutics records annual turnover of roughly £80 million and employs more than 600 people – manufacturing the products in the UK, before storing them in warehouses and shipping them abroad.

“We knew there was going to be a massive impact,” as a result of Brexit, its operations director Bev Lees told Byline Times. Largely, she says, because there is a lack of alignment between UK and EU health agencies – meaning that the vaccines developed by the firm must be tested by an EU-based laboratory, in an EU country, before they can be shipped to their final destination.

“With 90 different allergens of different biochemical composition, that’s a massive task,” she adds.

Lees had the unenviable task of organising the firm’s Brexit preparations and says that work began nearly four years ago, in 2017: “We planned for worst case, which is in effect pretty much what we got.”

This involved building a laboratory in Spain – at a site close to Madrid – and then re-testing all of the firm’s products, as well as amending the product marketing authorisation, so that they would be ready for dispatch when the UK made its final departure from the EU.

These efforts, which set the company back more than £1 million, were only completed last month.

It has been a “massive project,” Lees says, that has not been the best use of business time and resources. “We were looking at investing in efficiencies, better ways of working. We also undertake clinical studies to develop new products. Investing in those would have been far more productive.”

Ultimately, the investments that Allergy Therapeutics couldn’t make – because it was too busy preparing for Brexit – would have been in the UK, where its research and development team is based. Instead, the firm has ploughed cash into its EU operation.

This investment has been designed to mitigate the friction caused by Brexit, but even this hasn’t been enough to stop the firm from running into problems.

Before January – when the UK signed on the dotted line and embarked on its new trading relationship with the EU – Allergy Therapeutics sent products to the continent five days a week. Now, its vans roll out on just two days.

“The only place we could get an import license – because you need a license for importing medicines – was Spain,” Lees says.

That means all of the company’s vans, whether they are delivering to Germany or Slovakia or anywhere else on the continent, have to go through Barcelona first, so that the medicines agency can inspect the paperwork and the goods.

“So there’s a very long journey for the van drivers,” she laments. “And then there’s a very tedious process when it gets to Barcelona. Each delivery has been a voyage of discovery. That’s our big issue.”

While she is hopeful of obtaining more import licenses soon, currently Spain is Lees’ only option, with other EU nations still unclear on the rules they will follow.

She also hopes that the UK and EU health agencies can soon reach an agreement to harmonise testing standards, to avoid the costly, time-consuming process currently being suffered by firms.

Of course, the upheaval experienced by vaccine firms such as Allergy Therapeutics won’t be assisted in the short-term by a mini trade war between the UK and the EU over the supply of Coronavirus vaccines. Last week, the EU threatened to restrict the export of vaccines to the UK after running into supply issues.

Despite this, Bev Lees doesn’t seem to be unduly worried. “I’m not sure they could make trading more difficult than it already is,” she says, wryly.

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