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Labour Party takes aim at pharma, calls attention to Orkambi row

Proposal to introduce compulsory licensing faces industry criticism

Jeremy Corbyn

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has announced plans to “take on pharmaceutical companies” in his speech at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton. 

The new initiative, named ‘Medicines for Many’, included policies which take a direct aim at drug companies, who the leader said are putting “profits for shareholders before people’s lives”.

According to the plan, under a Labour government patented drugs would be subject to compulsory or ‘Crown Use’ licensing, which would mean that generic versions of these drugs could be manufactured at a lower cost.

The policy also outlined a long-term plan to set up a state-owned pharmaceutical company, which would manufacture these generic medicines. This public company would sell medicines to the NHS, and would reinvest profits into "publicly funded research and development facilities".

The Labour leader highlighted the case of Luis Walker, a cystic fibrosis patient who has been the face of various campaigns for access to Vertex’s Orkambi (ivacaftor/lumacaftor).

The infamously public battle between the American pharma company, NHS England and NICE has been met with increasing criticism as frustrated patient groups have decided to bypass the system to source generic copies of the drug and establish a buyers’ club.

Vertex agreed a deal with Scotland recently, which has reignited the debate for access in England and Wales, where the drug is still not available on the NHS.

Speaking at the conference, Corbyn said that “Luis is denied the medicine he needs because its manufacturer refuses to sell the drug to the NHS for an affordable price”.

Also announced at the conference was a plan to abolish all prescription charges for people living in England, where people can pay up to £104 per year for medicine.

Industry response

The speech has been met with criticism from the pharma industry, with the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) responding to the proposal of compulsory licensing, saying it is not the right “answer”.

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

“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,” he added.

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The UK BioIndustry Association (BIA) was also critical of the proposed plans, saying it could undermine the smaller companies within the UK which were researching into new medicines.

“New life-saving medicines are not just being developed by a few large pharmaceutical companies but also hundreds of innovative SMEs across the UK,” said Steve Bates, chief executive of the BIA.

Labour’s proposal to use compulsory licenses risks cutting off investment in the small companies up and down the UK that are working hard to develop new treatments for patients that have few options,” he added.

The conference is taking place amid a historical week for UK politics, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to return early from his trip to New York for the UN summit following the Supreme Court decision that his prorogation of parliament was unlawful.

Article by
Lucy Parsons

25th September 2019

From: Healthcare

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