Corbyn Plans to Take on 'Big Pharma' With State Drugs Body

Peter Russell

September 25, 2019

Labour announced plans to make medicines more affordable to the NHS by creating a publicly-owned drugs manufacturer to supply generic medicines.

Jeremy Corbyn used his keynote party conference speech to announce the initiative, called Medicines for the Many .

The opposition leader said: "We will redesign the system to serve public health not private wealth using compulsory licensing to secure generic versions of patented medicines."

He added that a future Labour government would "create a new, publicly-owned generic drugs manufacturer to supply cheaper medicines to our NHS – saving our health service money, and saving lives".

'Profits Before Patients'

Mr Corbyn raised the case of Luis Walker, a 9-year-old boy he had met the previous day, who was unable to receive the drug lumacaftor-ivacaftor (Orkambi, Vertex) to treat cystic fibrosis because of a long-running dispute between the manufacturer and NHS England over pricing.

NHS England revealed earlier this year that it was prepared to offer Vertex around £500 million over the next 5 years for access to lumacaftor-ivacaftor and some other drugs. Earlier this month, the Scottish Government announced it was stepping in to secure lumacaftor-ivacaftor for patients on the NHS in Scotland.

The Labour leader accused pharmaceutical companies of putting "profits for shareholders before people's lives" in the case of Luis and thousands of others living with conditions such as cystic fibrosis, hepatitis C, and breast cancer.

Plans for a publically-owned generic drugs manufacturer were a longer-term ambition, Labour made clear. It also planned to replace the current system where research and development funding was channelled into the most lucrative and profitable medicines to one where upfront grants and funding awards were tied to public health priorities, such as antimicrobial resistance.

Also, in cases where taxpayers' money was spent on funding for research and development, manufacturers would be bound to ensure patient access and affordability.

"We’ll tell the drugs companies that if they want public research funding, then they’ll have to make their drugs affordable for all," Mr Corbyn told delegates in Brighton on Tuesday.

In the intermediate future, Labour planned to:

  • Actively use voluntary and compulsory licenses to secure affordable generic versions of patented medicines where the patented product could not be accessed

  • Increase the transparency of medicine prices, the true cost of research and development, and pharmaceutical company finances so that the NHS could have informed discussions on drug pricing

  • Resist efforts to increase corporate control over medicine and drug intellectual property rights in future trade deals

The End of Big Pharma's 'Stranglehold' Over Medicines?

Some health campaigners welcomed Labour's announcement.

Prof Mariana Mazzucato, director of the University College London Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose said: "When the Government funds the development of new medicines it must do so in a systematic way to make sure that the benefits reach the patients that need them.

"Instead, we currently have a system where the risks of innovation are socialised, while the benefits are privatised through dysfunctional uses of intellectual property rights, a financialised business model, and a pricing system that does not recognise taxpayer investment."

Heidi Chow, campaigns manager at Global Justice Now commented: "This could be the beginning of the end of Big Pharma's stranglehold over our medicines.

"We cannot go on with patients suffering needlessly without vital drugs, as medicine prices skyrocket and the pharmaceutical industry makes billions. This is a global scandal."

Dr Richard Torbett, executive director of commercial policy at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, said: "The situation on Orkambi is rare, but it is clearly unacceptable, and a solution needs to be found for patients and their families.

"However, 'compulsory licensing' – the seizure of new research – is not the answer. It would completely undermine the system for developing new medicines. It would send a hugely negative signal to British scientists and would discourage research in a country that wants to be a leader in innovation."

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