We, the undersigned UK based patient and civil society organisations, are appalled by the UK Government’s opposition to the transparency resolution at this week’s World Health Assembly (WHA). It is outrageous that the UK has attempted to derail WHA negotiations on this important transparency resolution but it is doubly shameful that they have now disassociated themselves from it altogether, after pushing for damaging amendments that have significantly weakened the text.
There are considerable asymmetries in access to information between the pharmaceutical industry and governments. The systematic lack of transparency allows pharmaceutical companies to charge high prices, leading to unequal access and preventing proper accountability of institutions.
High and arbitrarily priced medicines have become a serious issue for health systems around the world, including the NHS, preventing patient access to life-saving medicines. Here in the UK the UK the Government is still fighting Vertex over the £104,000 price tag of cystic fibrosis drug Orkambi. Whilst patients in low and middle income countries struggle with the price of new HIV and TB treatment, insulin and breast cancer drugs, among other health technologies.
With this global access to medicines crisis, the UK Government must support measures lowering costs of medicines to make sure everyone can access the health technologies they need. The UK government’s behaviour appears contrary to their recent call for a more informed debate on transparency in relation to the OECD Pharmaceutical Innovation and Access to Medicines report. Engaging positively in negotiations and supporting the resolution would have provided an opportunity for the UK Government to show genuine leadership in addressing the access to medicines crisis. Instead they seem to be protecting the status quo and the commercial interests of the pharmaceutical lobby. The industry lobby are incredibly well-funded, organised and have a close relationship with UK Government: at least 3 former Glaxo Smith Kline employees have held Ministerial or senior civil servant roles in the last 5 years.
It is disappointing that after pushing to weaken the text the UK have used a procedural argument as an excuse for not supporting the resolution. Although Italy didn’t follow common practice by not discussing the resolution at January’s Executive Board meeting, Member States have until the first day of the World Health Assembly to submit a resolution (as long as it related to a specific agenda item). In this case, Italy’s resolution was tabled under agenda item 11.7, Access to medicines and vaccines on the 1st February 2019.
Other countries have followed this procedure and their resolutions have been supported by the World Health Organisation (WHO). For example, in 2005 Kenya didn’t follow common practice when they started the process that led to the WHO Global Strategy and Plan of Action on Public Health, Innovation, and Intellectual Property (GSPOA). Kenya submitted their resolution two days late on the 16th November 2005 as they were responding to a famine in the north of the country. The UK Government is, however, supportive of GSPOA. The formal process of submitting the resolution to the WHA was also preceded by informal processes with two rounds of negotiations, which the UK Government and other members states participated in. Given this precedent and opportunity for discussions, the procedure that member states followed to table the transparency resolution shouldn’t negate UK Government support; especially on such an important issue.
As a result of the UK’s behaviour campaigners are calling for a formal review of the level and impact of the pharmaceutical industry’s influence on the UK Government. The UK Government must no longer block measures for greater transparency of the drug industry that will help ensure lower drug prices and make sure everyone can access the medicines they need.
Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA)
Global Justice Now
Health Poverty Action
People’s Health Movement
Students for Global Health
Universities Allied for Essential Medicines UK