‘This could be the beginning of the end of Big Pharma’: Campaigners react to Labour public drugs manufacturer policy

Ben Wray

Corbyn: “We will redesign the system to serve public health – not private wealth”

  • Jeremy Corbyn told Labour conference that the party “will create a new publicly owned generic drugs manufacturer to supply cheaper medicines to our NHS”
  • Policy announcement comes after NHS England refused to purchase Orkambi drug from US pharmaceutical firm to treat those suffering from cystic fibrosis because the price was “unaffordable”
  • In Scotland, the Scottish Government provided additional funding to the NHS to purchase Orkambi after the Scottish Medicines Consortium also ruled that it was too expensive
  • Cost of purchasing drugs to NHS Scotland rose over 25 per cent from 2008-2018
  • Mariana Mazzucato, economic adviser to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, among those to welcome Labour’s policy announcement

JEREMY CORBYN has said that a Labour government would set-up a public pharmaceutical manufacturer to reduce the cost of drugs to the NHS in England, a move hailed by public health campaigners. 

Corbyn, speaking to Labour’s party conference in Brighton on Tuesday [24 September], said that the cost of pharmaceuticals to the NHS was currently too high, citing the specific case of the genetic disorder cystic fibrosis, which the US pharmaceutical firm Vertex produces the drug Orkambi to treat. 

The NHS in England offered £500 million over five years, which it described as the largest offer in its 70 year history, for Orkambi but Vertex turned it down. 

The Scottish Medicines Consortium also ruled the drug, which has a list price of £100,000 per per person per year, unaffordable, but the Scottish Government stepped in to cover the costs of the purchase of the drug. The Scottish Government has not revealed details of the deal struck.

Speaking in Brighton, Corbyn said: “Yesterday I met Luis Walker, a wonderful nine-year-old boy. Luis is living with cystic fibrosis. Every day he needs at least four hours of treatment and is often in hospital keeping him from school and his friends. Luis’ life could be very different with the aid of a medicine called Orkambi. But Luis is denied the medicine he needs because its manufacturer refuses to sell the drug to the NHS for an affordable price.

READ MORE: Pharma for the ‘common good’? Calls to end corporate monopoly as figures reveal rising NHS prescriptions bill

“Luis, and tens of thousands of others suffering from illnesses such as cystic fibrosis hepatitis C and breast cancer are being denied life-saving medicines by a system that puts profits for shareholders before people’s lives.

“Labour will tackle this. We will redesign the system to serve public health – not private wealth – using compulsory licensing to secure generic versions of patented medicines. 

“We’ll tell the drugs companies that if they want public research funding then they’ll have to make their drugs affordable for all. 

“And we will create a new publicly owned generic drugs manufacturer to supply cheaper medicines to our NHS saving our health service money and saving lives. We are the party that created the NHS. Only Labour can be trusted with its future.”

Commenting, Christina Walker, mother to Luis, said: “My child’s future is being put in jeopardy by the behaviour of one pharmaceutical company – Vertex. But it’s not the first or the last time that excessive profits have been put above patients’ health, and with 7,000 rare diseases currently without an effective treatment or cure, our situation could be replicated many times over in the future if the government doesn’t intervene now. 

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“Across the NHS the high price of new medicines is causing huge strain, affecting the lives of patients with conditions ranging from cancer to hepatitis. Most people recognise that major reforms are needed. Quite clearly drugs don’t work if patients can’t take them.

“I’m pleased to see that Labour are willing to explore every alternative to tackle this access to medicine crisis. I call on the government and other parties to do the same.”

CommonSpace reported in July 2018 on the rise in the cost of drugs to NHS Scotland in recent years. The total cost of medicine and delivering pharmacy services rose by 25.7 per cent since 2008 to £1.3 billion, while the amount spent specifically on medicines has increased by 19.7 per cent over the same period to £1.2 billion.

Craig Dalzell, head of policy & research at Scottish think-tank the Common Weal, said at the time that the Scottish Government should “look seriously at the possibility of creating a publicly owned national pharmaceutical company which could produce key drugs and equipment for NHS Scotland”.

Heidi Chow, campaigns manager at Global Justice Now, said following Corbyn’s announcement: “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. 

READ MORE: ‘Holding patients’ lives to ransom’: Scottish cancer patients call for government intervention as big pharma prices NHS out

“We are delighted at Labour’s pledge to tackle the broken system for researching and developing medicines head-on. Labour’s policy will put public health before corporate profits and enable people here in the UK and around the world to access the effective treatments they need.”

Mike Podmore, director of STOPAIDS, said: “Big Pharma have ripped off the NHS and patients around the world for years by charging excessive, ever-escalating prices for new medicines. In developing countries, patients either have no access to key drugs or they are so expensive that they are forced to choose between food or medicine. As a result, countless patients have died without access. 

“We therefore hugely welcome Labour’s announcement that they are willing to break Big Pharma’s grip on our health by ensuring that the UK’s model for researching and developing medicines is fit for public health needs, not private wealth. This is essential in the fight to achieve universal health coverage and ending global epidemics, such as AIDS and tuberculosis.”

Professor Mariana Mazzucato, Director and Founder of the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose and economic adviser to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, also welcomed the move.

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“It is welcome that the Labour Party is addressing key failures of the pharmaceutical sector,” Mazzucato 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. 

“At the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose we have been working with global leaders, from all sides of the political spectrum, to change this, and are happy that it is becoming central to the Labour Party’s platform.”

The right-wing think-tank Institute of Economic Affairs criticised the move, saying it was wrong to seek to “remove all profit motive from healthcare”.

IEA Associate Director Kate Andrews said: Jeremy Corbyn’s call for compulsory licensing for medication puts at risk a patent system that encourages innovation and revolutions in medicine, which patients in the UK and across the world benefit from daily. 

“Removing all profit motive from healthcare is likely to worsen the problems that already exist in the NHS: rationing, limited patient choice, and the lack of innovation in the market for drugs and new treatment.

Picture courtesy of Marco Verch