The UK’s Labour Party Pledges a New Approach to Ensure Rare Disease Drug Access

According to a story from The Guardian, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the UK Labour Party, announced a remarkable plan at the most recent Labour party conference that has the potential to dramatically improve drug access for the nation’s citizens. The plan involves the creation of a publicly owned drug company that will manufacture its own versions of some of the most expensive drugs in the world.

Drug Prices: A Barrier to Coverage

For many years, a number of drugs have been stuck in total deadlock when it comes to approval for coverage on the NHS. These are drugs that are often designed to treat rare diseases that the country’s regulators have simply determined aren’t worth coverage. This is due to a combination of either dubious effectiveness or, more frequently, extreme costs. An example is the drug Orkambi, which is used to treat cystic fibrosis. While this drug can be effective for some patients, its sky-high price has kept it from getting covered. Unfortunately, the company that makes the drug is refusing to negotiate the price.

Jeremy told the compelling story of Luis Walker, a nine year old cystic fibrosis patient whose disease is steadily worsening; but he simply cannot afford the treatment that he needs. The creation of a publicly controlled drug company to make its own version of these drugs would require the breaking of the patents that these companies currently hold, which could technically be done legally under rules laid out by the World Trade Organization.

Patients Over Profits

Under such as system, the original manufacturer of Orkambi would still get compensation for the drug, but not at the astronomical price point that they want. Jeremy also says that a Labour government would pressure drug companies to comply by withholding public funding for research.

These may seem like drastic measures to some, but to the families of rare disease patients, such as plan probably sounds like music to their ears. A publicly controlled drug maker would allow for the needs of patients to finally be put ahead of the bottom line of massive pharma companies. To be clear, the UK would not be the first nation that would be willing to challenge or break patents in order to get highly priced, critical drugs to its citizens; India, Brazil, and Argentina have taken similar measures in the past.

Ultimately, for a drug to have the greatest impact possible, it has to be able to actually reach the patients that need it; it is high time that the needs of patients are placed at the highest priority, both in the UK and elsewhere. 

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