Today is a great victory for Orkambi campaigners. Now let’s take on big pharma

Rebecca Long-Bailey

It was announced this morning that one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies had caved into pressure from a campaign supported by Jeremy Corbyn to supply the life-changing cystic fibrosis drug Orkambi on the NHS. This is a wonderful victory for all the campaigners who have taken on the greed of big drugs companies – and proves that they can be beaten.

In his conference speech last month, Jeremy introduced the world to nine year-old Luis Walker, from Horam, East Sussex, who lives with cystic fibrosis. Luis wrote to Vertex, who manufacture the drug, last year, begging the US drugs giant to make Orkambi available to the health service because it could help slow the deterioration of his lungs.

Before this morning’s decision, the drug was deemed too expensive for the NHS to supply at a cost of £104,000 per year per patient. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence who decide what drugs the NHS can afford to supply said that price was unsustainable. Meanwhile, Vertex recorded more than $3bn in revenues last year.

Forcing Vertex to sell Orkambi to the NHS at a fair price is a major victory for the campaign to put a stop to big pharma profiteering and make sure that children like Luis, and 4,000 other people who will benefit, are given access to life-saving drugs. But it’s not just those living with cystic fibrosis who are being denied the medicine they need. People with hepatitis C, breast cancer and other illnesses are also being denied vital drugs by greedy drugs companies.

Labour’s solution, which will tackle both high prices and the additional cost of public health priorities not being met, is to “delink” financial rewards and high product prices from the costs associated with R&D. We’ll do this by providing direct financial support for health innovation through a combination of upfront grants, subsidies and prizes.

Our plans are threefold. First, we won’t be afraid to use Crown Use licensing to allow the production of generic versions of drugs when the situation requires it. Vertex and the government eventually came to a deal under enormous pressure from campaigners. Had the government been more willing to use compulsory licensing, it could have forced Vertex to make an acceptable offer much sooner, instead of keeping patients waiting four years.

Next, we’ll tell pharmaceutical companies that they will have to make their medicines affordable if they want to receive public research funding. Finally, we’ll create a publicly owned drugs manufacturer to supply the NHS directly.

Unsurprisingly, our pledge to make life-saving medicines available to everyone has not been popular with the companies whose massive profits might be affected. The industry body, the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), said that compulsory licensing “would completely undermine the system for developing new medicines”.

As we’ve already said, Crown Use licensing is permitted under the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of International Property Rights and includes safeguards to balance intellectual property rights with the human right to health.

On top of that, Crown Use licenses will be used only in exceptional cases. Even the ABPI described the situation with Orkambi as “clearly unacceptable”. As welcome as today’s announcement is, the fact is that it should have come much sooner. And it would have done – if the government had considered Crown Licensing an option.

The existing patent system for medicines relies on the ethical behaviour of companies to moderate their own monopoly power. Companies that do sell their medicines for a fair price that the NHS can afford will not be affected by Labour’s plans, but the government has a moral responsibility to step in and employ Crown Use licenses when pharmaceutical companies abuse their power and endanger people’s lives.

Labour will also reform public funding of drug development. As it stands, the basic science behind new drugs is supported by public funding. Pharmaceutical companies then develop these innovations – paid for by the state – then take them to market and are rewarded with a patent. The problem with this is that the public sector often ends up paying twice. First to fund the initial science, then through the extortionate monopoly pricing imposed on the NHS by drugs companies.

At the same time, there is the problem of less profitable health issues, like antibiotic resistance and tuberculosis, which are often ignored by big pharma. Remedies to antibiotic resistance, for example, by their very nature can only be used a limited number of times, so addressing this looming global crisis isn’t likely to be a tasty money-spinner for drug company shareholders.

Labour has a solution to both parts of this problem. We’ll attach conditions to all public funding, making sure that the resulting discoveries are affordable and thus can be openly licensed. This will push down the cost of production, allow generic manufacture and facilitate competition.

A publicly-owned drugs company would form part of this system, manufacturing openly licensed drugs and bidding for prizes or grants to do open access research. It could also safeguard the supply of generics drugs to the NHS which are in shortage or have had massive price hikes.

And despite all this, the drugs industry has nothing to fear. Our plans do not affect patents for products where development is entirely privately funded. Labour want to make sure that public money supports innovation, rather than being funnelled into corporate coffers. Only innovation dependent on public funds will be affected.

The reason behind big pharma’s scaremongering is clear. It’s not innovation that our proposals threaten, but the public handouts funnelled to millionaire shareholders. Above all, as Jeremy Corbyn said in his conference speech: “We will redesign the system to serve public health – not private wealth.” Labour will end this fixed racket and fight for the public health of children like Luis to make sure nobody else is made to suffer or die through lack of access to the medicines they need.

This article was amended on October 24th, 8.45pm, to reflect that the Orkambi campaign was supported rather than led by Labour.

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