Medicines for the Many: Labour’s pledges on medicines policy 

United Kingdom

With a general election scheduled for 12 December 2019 we will be running a series of posts considering the radical transformations of the patent and health innovation systems envisaged by the recently launched Labour manifesto and informed by its policy document, Medicines for the Many: Public Health Before Private Profit.

This article provides an overview of Labour’s policy, which argues the UK’s system for funding, protecting and commercialising pharmaceutical innovations is broken. Future instalments will examine the rationale for some of Labour’s key short, medium and long-term proposals, consider certain practicalities involved in the implementation of the Labour Party’s vision and explore the potential to introduce meaningful changes through the current patent system.

Key Proposals

Medicines for the Many promises to be “a concrete plan for transforming the innovation system into one that benefits public health”. Media coverage of the policy to date has largely focussed on the high prices charged for certain medicinal products and the Labour Party’s proposal to launch a state-funded generic manufacturer. The policy’s intentions are far more ambitious than this. In short, the aim is to overhaul the relationship between the state and the pharmaceutical industry in the UK, resulting in “fundamental systemic change”.

To achieve this, Labour pledges to:

  1. Immediately apply Crown use licensing to force a reduction of drug prices. Crown use licensing is permitted under the current Patents Act, making this the only one of Labour’s proposals which could be implemented immediately by a new government. Labour’s construction of the law is problematic, however, suggesting the statutory requirement to compensate the patentee for such use is “ambiguous”. As will be discussed in our second article on the immediate impact of Medicines for the Many, both the Patents Act 1977 and international trading standards require compensation to be paid to rights holders. We will also explore the potential implications a radical overhaul could have on the UK’s ability to enter trade deals with key international partners.
  1. In the medium-term, impose strict criteria on publicly funded research, requiring product affordability, reinvestment of profits, open access to research and transparency of R&D data. Although a suitable framework could be put in place within a relatively short timeframe, conditions on funding cannot be imposed retrospectively, meaning any impact would be felt in the medium to long-term. Considering this, our third article on the medium-term impact of Labour’s proposals will look at the potential impact on stakeholders and consider whether the imposition of stricter funding criteria would maximise UK taxpayers’ return on investment.
  1. In the longer-term, replace patent protection for pharmaceutical products with front-loaded incentives (“de-linkage”) and increase public control of the pharmaceutical innovation and supply chain. The Labour Party’s ambitious long-term plans would require more than one parliamentary term to implement, as well as support from multiple international actors. We will discuss the risks associated with these plans in our fourth article.

The final article in this series will provide alternative, practical suggestions for improving access to drugs under the current patent regime, as well as reflecting on the need to ensure a balance between promoting innovation and guarding against profiteering.