Trade secretary Kemi Badenoch has hit back at claims the NHS could be set to pay higher costs for drugs as a result of a UK-India trade deal.
It has emerged that a leaked chapter of the free trade agreement (FTA) between UK and India contains provisions that suggests, amongst other things, pharmaceutical companies would be allowed to extend their monopolies and keep prices artificially high for years beyond the end of an original 20 year patent term.
Another provision in the document, which was seen by City A.M. after being unearthed by Global Justice Now, would see the end of so-called “pre-grant” patent oppositions, a mechanism which is currently used to block patents before they are formally granted.
Without this safeguard more products could be subject to patent monopolies, preventing the manufacture of generic versions, experts have explained to this paper – meaning pharma companies could keep prices higher as a result of their monopoly.
However the Department for International Trade told City A.M. today that medicines bought from abroad in the UK are subject to UK, not foreign, intellectual property regimes and the UK would never agree any measures that would increase costs for the NHS.
Emergency letter to Badenoch
In a letter to Kemi Badenoch, the International Trade Secretary, multiple health and development groups warn that the cost of NHS medicines, 25 per cent of which are supplied by India, could be affected if the UK forces India to change national laws related to intellectual property as a result of trade negotiations.
Signatories to the letter from nine civil society organisations, including Oxfam GB and Médecins Sans Frontières UK, call for the UK to “immediately withdraw” the proposed intellectual property chapter.
In fact, they wrote that the proposed provisions would do “devastating damage to India’s ability to produce affordable life saving drugs, which in turn would also threaten the financial sustainability of the NHS and put patients’ lives at risk by delaying the availability of lower priced genetic alternatives to essential medicines, potentially for years.”
The groups also urge the government to open up the negotiation texts to public transparency and parliamentary scrutiny.
NHS drugs from India
Generic drugs manufactured by India save the NHS considerable cost; a year’s course of imatinib treatment, a cancer drug used to treat leukaemia, was previously priced at £27,200 per year under monopoly.
The patent for imatinib was rejected in India under provisions of their IP law that would be at risk of being removed by the UK demands detailed in the leaked text, effectively allowing firms to keep prices higher than they would otherwise be if patents had expired.
The NHS now pays just £556.32 for a course of Indian-produced generic imatinib, almost a 98 per cent price reduction.
The letter argued that the proposed text is “a significant departure” from previous IP agreements under past FTAs; going far beyond the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).
Taking this “TRIPS-plus” approach would undermine the Government’s manifesto commitment that the cost of NHS medicines ‘are not on the table’ and protecting the NHS is a ‘fundamental principle’ of UK trade policy as outlined in the Government’s own strategic approach to a UK-India FTA, according to the document, which was shared with City A.M. by Global Justice Now.
However. Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch told City A.M. today: “I will never agree any provisions that would increase the cost of medicines for our National Health Service. The NHS, its services, and the cost of medicines are not on the table. Protecting the NHS is a fundamental principle of our trade policy, and our commitment to this will not change during our negotiations with India.”
Analysing the leaked document, Dr Andrew Hill, Senior Visiting Research Fellow, University of Liverpool Institute of Translational Medicine, said that “the provisions set out in this leaked document would have extremely serious consequences for the NHS, and the impacts would become more and more serious over time.”
He explained that “by making it easier to secure patents and other forms of intellectual property monopolies on medicines, and much more difficult to challenge them, the UK government would be pushing the dramatic price-reducing effects of generic competition further and further into the future. Prices for the NHS will rise, patients will suffer.”
The leaked document has sent shockwaves through the NHS and Britain’s medical community.
“We’d be signing our own death warrants if we agree a deal with these terms – the government simply has to back down.”Carol Webley Brown, a Just Treatment Patient Leader
Carol Webley Brown, a Just Treatment patient leader, explained why she was horrified to read the leaked document: “I simply cannot understand why the government would willingly push for changes through this FTA that would push up drug prices for the NHS and put its budget under even more pressure.”
Politician, barrister, and human rights activist Baroness Shami Chakrabarti said: “If accurate, this text risks India’s ability to produce life-saving medicines for millions of people around the world.” I
She added that “I hope our Prime Minister knows what is being argued in his name and that India stands firm against corporate interests over people’s lives.
She added that “ministers resisted the Covid 19 vaccine intellectual property trips waiver that would have scaled up production and prevented many untimely deaths.”
“It is increasingly difficult to distinguish UK Government statements from those of Big Pharma trade bodies.”Baroness Shami Chakrabarti
Cost-reducing efforts within NHS
Purchasing cheaper generic versions of medicines has dramatically reduced NHS costs.
Earlier this year the NHS reported it had saved £1.2bn in just three years with the adoption of a single generic drug, adalimumab, following the expiry of the original patent in 2018, accounting for about one third of these savings.
If implemented, the provisions in the leaked text would significantly delay generic competition from Indian suppliers for treatments for a range of conditions from cancer, to HIV, to heart diseases, locking the NHS into paying higher monopoly prices for longer and undermining healthcare around the world.
Sakina Datoo, a Just Treatment Patient Leader, said this morning that “the leaked FTA text shows the UK government’s positions on monopolies and medicines are a disgrace.”
“Almost the entire world agreed that IP monopolies on those vaccines were a dangerous threat to the global (Covid) pandemic response, but the UK sided with the pharmaceutical industry to block that deal then.”
“Now this leak seems to confirm the government’s priority in this agreement is pleasing big pharma, rather than protecting the NHS or saving the lives of patients in the UK or around the world,” Datoo concluded.