House of Lords debate on the pharmaceutical companies and the cost of medicines

Jan 12, 2021 | Uncategorized

January 12th 2021Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB) [V]

My Lords, I spoke at some length on this issue in Committee and am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, has given us the opportunity to explore it again. She has done so with her usual thoroughness and thought. I am also pleased to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, who spoke so well. The noble Lord, Lord Bethell, has exchanged letters, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, referred to; that has been extremely helpful and I think will avoid the need for a Division, but it is right we explore this issue thoroughly. 

I will not repeat all the detailed arguments made in Committee, but, in headline terms, Amendment 10 is being considered in the context of exclusive intellectual property rights which can in some circumstances create monopolies, leading to high prices and supply issues for medicines and medical devices. We are seeing those issues come to the fore in the Covid-19 response.

In an Oral Question that I asked on the Floor of your Lordships’ House on 30 November to the Trade Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, I argued that in the context of hundreds of millions of Covid vaccines being held in the United Kingdom and the significant sums of public money invested in developing new drugs and treatments, notwithstanding the need to generate funds to enable future research and development, when companies such as Gilead repurpose drugs such as remdesivir and charge $2,340 for a Covid treatment that Liverpool University estimates can be done for $9, the Government should invoke their powers in such circumstances to use Crown licences to prevent patent monopolies impeding access to medicine, to ensure equitable access, prevent exploitative profiteering and recognise that affordable drugs and their fair distribution are a public good that this country should be at the forefront in providing.7.00pm

In November, the Minister the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, responded:

“There are existing mechanisms that facilitate the sharing of intellectual property—for example, the Medicines Patent Pool, which has been so successful with HIV. To follow up on this point, we are committed to identifying whether and how C-TAP could add value to the existing infrastructure.”—[Official Report, 30/11/20; col. 503.]

It would be extremely helpful to me and I think to the House this evening if the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, could tell us what progress has been made in that examination of whether and how C-TAP could add value.

It is simply obscene and no better than speculative profiteering when wholly disproportionate mark-ups are added to the price of a drug. It brings to mind wartime profiteering—profits being generated while other people are making great sacrifices for the common good.

It is hugely important during this pandemic that access to medicines is a fundamental right of all, and it would be good to hear the noble Baroness’s assessment of the impact that the extremely unwelcome reduction of our aid programmes from 0.7% to 0.5%—already reduced in real terms because of the fall in GNI—will have on our ability to ensure access to life-saving medicines in some of the most deprived and poorest parts of the world.

Perhaps the noble Baroness can also say what assessment has been made of the impact of the export ban, made last year on over 80 medicines to help ensure an uninterrupted supply of medicines for NHS hospitals during this public health emergency? That is highly understandable, but how has it affected access to medicines in the developing world, and are we able to increase production of some of those drugs to enable exports to be resumed? In November, the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, promised to find out how much of the overseas aid budget has been reserved to help to pay for accessible drugs for developing countries. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, can tell us today.

As a young man, I got to know very well a family with three children, two of whom had cystic fibrosis. I became acutely aware of the nature of that terrible affliction. So I followed with great interest the experience of the UK trying to get access to the cystic fibrosis drug Orkambi, which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan. By issuing a compulsory licence instead of going through years of stalled negotiations with Vertex Pharmaceuticals, lives could have been saved.

Parents of children with cystic fibrosis were forced to watch their child’s health deteriorate as Vertex, a US drug company, pushed for the National Health Service to pay the highest possible price for Orkambi. In response to the stalled negotiations and Vertex refusing to offer access to Orkambi on reasonable and affordable terms, Ministers stated that the UK Government would explore all options, including using a Crown use licence, to get access to the drug. The threat of a Crown use licence eventually influenced Vertex to reduce the price for Orkambi to a level that the National Health Service could afford.

That fight for the NHS to get access is just one example of the growing crisis in medicine prices globally, which using TRIPS flexibilities could help address. Over the last five years, access to drugs for the treatment of hepatitis C, breast cancer and rare diseases have all been delayed, rationed or denied to NHS patients due to price.

The ability of Governments to issue Crown use licences when patent monopolies prevent access to a medicine is a hugely important safeguard, and effectively enables a Government to issue a licence to another manufacturer to produce a generic version of a patented drug at a lower price. With medicines becoming ever more expensive, countries such as Australia, Canada and Germany have revised their national intellectual property laws to simplify the issuance of a compulsory license during a public health emergency. Is it not high time we did the same?

Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

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