Corbyn has called time on Britain’s ‘broken’ model for developing medicines

Labour’s plans couldn’t come soon enough for patients, writes the director of a leading HIV membership network.

The high price of medicines has become a regular headline in the UK, with the government still fighting Vertex over the price of cystic fibrosis drug Orkambi. In fact it is hard to find a country which isn’t battling with high drug prices anywhere.

In developing countries, too often patients either have no access to key drugs or they are so expensive that they are forced to choose between buying food or medicine. Lifesaving treatment for both non-communicable diseases and infectious diseases, including treatments for drug-resistant tuberculosis, remain prohibitively expensive. As a result, countless patients continue to die without access to essential medicines.

This included Tobeka, a mother of two and fearless activist from South Africa. She was diagnosed with HER2-positive breast cancer in 2013 and told that she needed trastuzumab (brand name Herceptin) to fight the cancer and improve her chances of survival. But Tobeka died because she was unable to access this essential treatment due to the extortionate price Roche were charging.

The current system of expensive medicines cannot continue – socially or economically. STOPAIDS and the Missing Medicines coalition have long argued that the high prices of new medicines are unsustainable for an already underfunded NHS and put these treatments completely beyond the reach of patients in developing countries.

But ultimately it’s up to the UK government to break Big Pharma’s grip on our health and ensure our model for researching and developing medicines is fit for public health needs, not profit. 

To tackle the immediate crisis facing the NHS, the Labour party state they would actively use voluntary and compulsory licenses to secure affordable generic versions of patented medicines where the patented product cannot be accessed. This could be a real game-changer for immediately increasing patient access to medicines.

The cystic fibrosis drug mentioned by Corbyn, Orkambi, is an example. Children living with cystic fibrosis in England have been denied access for over three years because pharma company Vertex refuses to drop the price to one that is affordable. Labour also promises to help developing countries, who often face phenomenal bullying from industry, to use these legal mechanisms to improve access to affordable medicine.

In his speech Corbyn rightly highlighted the need to end the scandal of the public effectively paying twice for the same medicine – first to develop it and then again to stock it.

STOPAIDS and Global Justice Now’s ‘Pills and Profits’ Report (2017) highlighted the high level of UK public money used to develop new drugs – with two out of five of the NHS’s most expensive drugs discovered using substantial public money. One example of a drug that benefitted from publicly funded research was trastuzumab, the breast cancer drug that Tobeka was denied access to.

Labour’s new policy commits a future Labour Government to play a more active role in ensuring that the rewards and incentives for innovation are tailored to delivering for public health needs rather than maximising monopoly driven profits for pharmaceutical companies. This is an important step.

Our governments must do more than simply treat the symptoms of our fundamentally flawed system, such as the failure of the pharmaceutical industry to develop new antibiotics. Instead they should transform our R&D model.

It is therefore very welcome that a Labour government intends to take greater public control over medicines production. Labour have strong recommendations for how to implement this, including financing a new, publicly owned generic drugs manufacturer to supply cheaper medicines to our NHS.

Whilst Big Pharma may want to block people-powered change, we only have to look at the history of the HIV response to see what is possible. It was during the height of the HIV epidemic in the early 2000s that global political mobilisation put huge pressure on governments and pharmaceutical companies and successfully got HIV patients access to cheaper generic versions of life-saving HIV drugs.

To save the NHS and support patients across the world, there is an urgent need to act. Labour’s proposals will help shift the power imbalance between the pharmaceutical industry and governments, helping to ensure people can get the medicines they need at prices we can all afford.

I hope other parties in the UK follow in their footsteps.

Mike Podmore is Director of STOPAIDS.

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12 Responses to “Corbyn has called time on Britain’s ‘broken’ model for developing medicines”

  1. David Lindsay

    A publicly owned generic drug manufacturer is an excellent idea. But there would be serious resistance. Big Pharma is very well-connected in and around Parliament. As is the arms trade, which has far more political clout than its economic importance would warrant. We need the renationalisation of BAE Systems as the monopoly supplier to our own Armed Forces, with a ban on all sale of arms abroad, and with a comprehensive programme of diversification in order to preserve the skills that were currently employed in the arms industry.

  2. gg poulloin

    I believe Labour want to develop a UK public sector generic manufacturer.

    A good idea but the meds will be a lot more expensive than can be bought from Generic manufacturers in India and Bangladesh?

  3. Dave Roberts

    I agree about buying meds from countries like Bangladesh. It has a massively expanding meds industry and we have traditional links with it.

  4. Chester Draws

    A publicly owned generic drug manufacturer is an excellent idea. But there would be serious resistance.

    There would be little or no resistance, as it is a terrible idea.

    Drugs are expensive to develop and make — if you could do so cheaply and easily, then someone would undercut the expensive manufacturers. That’s how private enterprise works. Many of the big drug companies aren’t in great financial states because they’re not particularly profitable. (Vertex, the company Corbyn is going after, is currently doing well. Let’s see how long it lasts.)

    Cystic Fibrosis, the example cited, isn’t a big enough market to make the economies of scale that make drugs cheap. Orkambi was only developed a couple of years ago, and the company needs to get their money back from the horrendously expensive cost of getting it past regulators. That’s where much of the big cost comes from — the regulation so beloved of LFF. Hundreds of millions can be spent, only for the drug to not be approved.

    In this particular instance, we can’t force Vertex to low the price of Orkambi because they have a patent. Good luck with Labour being able to get round that — the UK economy will tank if people cannot protect their patents. Not that Corbyn’s beloved (cough) EU would let Britain break international patent rules.

    If government drug companies were able to develop and manufacture drugs for a profit, they’d be all over it already. What would stop France, a country with a love of state run companies from doing it? Why did the DDR not take the lead in drug development? A national UK drug company would just lose a lot of money.

  5. Richard MacKinnon

    Thank you Chester Draws.

  6. Patrick Newman

    Yes Chest let’s get rid of the regulators and perhaps we can kill a few sick people and save the Treasury money – you prat!
    Drug companies not making money what nonsense – patents ensure they can extract monopoly profits. Much basic research the drug companies get from universities – free!

  7. steve

    Thank you, Patrick Newman.

  8. Tom Sacold

    The NHS should have its own production facilities for generic drugs in widespread use.

    Why pay the extortionate prices to feed the profits of multinational big-phama corporations?

  9. Richard MacKinnon

    Tom Sacold,
    Why stop at drugs? Why should the NHS not have its own bed linen factories? What about surgical equipment? Why should the nasty private sector make profits out of syringes and needles?
    Why not follow your logic to its natural conclusion and privitise everything?

  10. Dave Roberts

    Because, Richard McKinnon, nationalised industries are bywords for inefficiency and corruption. A few examples are British Leyland and council direct works programmes. The latter run by Hackney saw millions of pounds siphoned off to build houses out in Essex for union reps and councillors. I see the silly Trot Patrick Newman is still having foot stamping tantrums.

  11. geoff Brandt

    Safety testing of vaccines to the same standard as pharmaceutical drugs needs to be included, carried out by a body independent of the manufacturers, who should be made liable for adverse effects.

  12. Rosi Edwards

    Some out-of-patent drugs are being produced under monopoly conditions, as there is a lack of interest in competition, resulting in the remaining manufacturer charging ridiculous prices. It isn’t necessary to move straight away to a state-owned manufacturing plant (that will take time) to have a big impact. It is only necessary to commission the manufacturing of a selection of these drugs which are being abusively priced to serve as a warning to all firms doing this, or contemplating this. Yes, manufacturing could be commissioned abroad – provided we have guarantees about the impact of production on the local environment as well as the quality of the drugs produced. No-one is talking about the state developing new drugs at this stage though it might be a runner at some point. And as for why the NHS isn’t setting up new bedlinen producing companies: nobody is, at present, abusively pricing bedlinen. And there is a functioning market for bedlinen, so no worries there yet.

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