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Brexit risks delay in Brits getting vital new drugs

Brexit could leave us at the “back of the queue” for new drugs. All because the prime minister is allergic to the European Courts of Justice.


British patients could end up waiting longer to get vital new drugs following Brexit. Experts warn that this is a likely outcome should Britain leave the European Medicines Agency (EMA) when it leaves the EU.

In a report by the BBC, former medicines regulator Sir Alasdair Breckenridge said that leaving the EMA could mean that companies have to seek a separate assessment for their medicines for use in the UK. Sir Alasdair Breckenridge was chairman of the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said that as the British market is far smaller than the European market, drug companies “may decide not to come to the United Kingdom.”

The UK market compared to the European market of course is small and they may decide not to come to the United Kingdom.

So therefore there will be delay in getting new drugs – important new drugs, anti-cancer drugs, anti-infective drugs – for patients in the UK.

Sir Alasdair Breckenridge

Breckenridge’s concerns are similar to those made by MHRA’s current chairman, Professor Sir Michael Rawlins. The BBC report includes comments by Rawlins when he gave evidence to a House of Lords committee. In his evidence, he said that one of his biggest concerns over Brexit was that Britain risked going to “the back of the queue” for new drugs because we would only have “3% of the world market” when we leave the EU.

It’s the same argument for trade in general. Inside the EU, we are part of a trading market of 500m people. Outside, we are a trading market of 65m people.

What does the EMA do and why does the government want Britain to leave it?

The EMA is an EU agency, which evaluates medicines for human and veterinary use. Based on these evaluations, the EU makes a decision on whether to authorise a medicine for marketing across the bloc. The EMA also plays a role in supervising the safety of medicines in the EU once they have been authorised. As it is subject to the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which the prime minister seems allergic to, it is unlikely the UK will stay part of it. It is, it seems, the sole reason for the government’s desire to take Britain out of the EMA. Like immigration, the ECJ is one of Theresa May’s red lines that could very well lead to Britain biting its nose to spite its face.

The EMA along with the European Banking Authority are two EU agencies based in the UK that are set to relocate following Brexit. Cities in other EU countries have already been working on bids to lure the agencies to them. They’ll be joining various financial services in the money and jobs Brexodus.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt told a House of Commons Health committee last month that he did did not expect Britain “to remain within the European Medicines Agency.” However, he added that he was “very hopeful” that we would continue to work closely with the agency. Hunt said that this would form part of the negotiating process.

But negotiations may prove tricky…

Despite the health secretary’s desire for the UK to remain close to the EMA, former MHRA chief executive Sir Kent Woods warned that the issue could get absorbed in the debate over trade. There is also the danger that negotiations on a future relationship are negatively impacted by negotiations over Britain’s withdrawal.

Whilst MPs this week voted in favour of the Article 50 bill that will kickstart negotiations, the Economist warns of another bill that could derail them. That is the withdrawal bill for Britain.

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