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UK fails to back international agreement on reducing drug costs

The resolution aims to reduce the cost of drugs
Anne Gulland, global health security correspondent

29 MAY 2019

The UK has been accused of acting in bad faith after backing away from an
international agreement aimed at reducing the cost of drugs worldwide.

In the run-up to this month's World Health Assembly - the decision-making
body of the World Health Organization - member states spent three weeks
negotiating the agreement aimed at increasing transparency over drug
pricing, with the UK, United States, Germany, Japan and Switzerland
demanding changes to the text.

However, when the final agreement was signed on Monday the UK, Germany and
Hungary formally dissociated themselves from it as they said they needed
more time to consider its implications.

In a statement to the WHA Julian Braithwaite, the UK's ambassador to the
United Nations in Geneva, said the government was committed to improving
access to medicines.

But he added: "The decision to bring this resolution to this World Health
Assembly without first giving member states ... the opportunity to review
and input, in addition to the manner in which negotiations were conducted
in the room, has not reflected the spirit of collaborative or consensus
working that we should expect from this forum."

The resolution urges member states to share information on the price they
pay for medicines and devices in a bid to lower drug costs as well as
ensure that all clinical trial results are published.

The resolution also requests that the WHO monitors the impact of
transparency on affordability and availability of health products.

An earlier draft of the resolution called for 'reliable, transparent and
sufficiently detailed data on the costs of research and development (R&D)',
including any public funding or subsidies received. This is not in the
final text.

Katy Athersuch, senior policy adviser at Medecins Sans Frontieres Access
Campaign, said that knowing how much it cost to develop a drug or product
and knowing whether companies had received any public funding was important
in understanding the true price of drugs. Pharmaceutical companies often
use the high cost of R&D as a 'justification for high prices', she said.

She said this part of the agreement had been 'watered right down' in the
final text.

'One thing that was galling about the compromise was that the countries
negotiated for many many hours and the UK was in the room until the very
last minute, pushing for these changes. Yet when it came to adopting it the
UK publicly disassociated itself from the resolution. This is an act of bad
faith,' she said.

A coalition of health charities, including Oxfam and Stop Aids, said there
were 'asymmetries' in access to information between the pharmaceutical
industry and governments which contributes to high prices and unequal
access both within and between countries.

Mike Podmore, director of Stop Aids, described the UK government's tactics
as 'shameful'.

He added: 'To push for damaging amendments to a resolution that aims to
improve the affordability of medicine, only to disassociate themselves from
it all together when they don't get their way, is shocking.

'Considering the global crisis in high and arbitrarily priced medicines, it
is outrageous that the UK is not supporting attempts to lower the cost of
drugs and save lives.'

Oxfam campaign officer, Tabitha Ha, said: "It is shameful that the UK,
Germany and Hungary chose not to support greater transparency. These
countries should prioritise people's health and commit to reveal medicine
prices and pressure companies to do the same for the costs of research and

But Ms Athersuch added that the fact that richer countries such as Norway
and Luxembourg were coming together with developing countries to condemn
the high prices of medicines was significant, describing the move as a
'historic mobilisation'  of countries.

'What was really exciting about the debate was that it took place at all
and countries came together to say 'we have a problem here'  medicines are
unaffordable'. We believe that more transparency on the costs of R&D and
the price other countries are paying will help us to achieve a better
system,' she said.

Thiru Balasubramaniam
Geneva Representative
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