Labour proposes Life Sciences Revolution

United Kingdom

As summarised in our earlier article, here, Jeremy Corbyn has made radical proposals to change the United Kingdom’s life sciences industry and patent regime. The proposals impact the research and development of pharmaceuticals, therapies and medical devices, and how the National Health Service (NHS) acquires drugs. This has raised significant concerns in the life sciences industry. Now is the time to address those concerns.

What was proposed?

Labour proposes to:

  • Use compulsory licences to acquire medicines if not offered to the NHS at affordable prices.
  • Review patent laws, particularly patentability thresholds, research exemptions and compulsory licensing.
  • Introduce stricter conditions on publicly funded research.
  • Consider removing patent-based monopolies for drug discovery.
  • Create “democratically owned” manufacturers to supply the NHS.
  • Increase public involvement in the life sciences industry, to define “health missions” and fund late-stage clinical trials.

The full proposal is available here.

The Conservatives also made life sciences proposals, though much higher-level:

  • £2.7bn over five years for six hospitals.
  • £200m public, and £400m private, funding for life sciences companies.

Why the concern?

Labour’s proposals would completely change the United Kingdom’s life sciences industry, primarily by scrapping the patent system and increasing government involvement, though compulsory licensing, nationalised manufacturing and mission-setting.

The patent system provides financial viability for the time, cost and risk of drug discovery, by granting a fixed-term monopoly that allows innovators to recoup their costs. Patents have many other uses, including in raising investments and cross-licensing collaborations. Other incentives could be developed, but may not provide proper compensation, particularly as the proposals seem focussed not on the development costs, but on the cost the purchaser is willing to pay, which is very different. This could create a significant disincentive to pursue drug discovery in the United Kingdom, particularly if other countries maintain their current patent systems.

Increased use of compulsory licensing is also a big concern. Companies will not want to incur significant costs in developing a drug only to be forced to sell that drug at a price that does not recoup those costs. Compulsory licensing schemes have already proved controversial in other countries – for example India.

What can be done?

Engage with Labour now, before a general election. Organisations can contact Labour and help educate their policy makers about the life sciences industry, its work and the incentives that drive it. By doing so, the policy makers may see the problems with these proposals and find workable solutions.