Patients could face a delay of up to a year for new medicines as a result of Brexit, the Heath Secretary told MPs on Tuesday.
Jeremy Hunt said Britain would leave the European Medicines Agency (EMA), a regulator, and confirmed this could reduce it to “second rank” in terms of access to new drugs, behind the EU and the US.
Major drugs companies, including those for cancer, use the EMA as a quick route to marketing medicines across the EU, as they can then bypass regulators in individual member states.
Hunt told the Health Select Committee it was also “likely” the regulator’s headquarters would move out of the UK, where it employs 890 people.
MPs slammed the Health Secretary for giving up membership of the EMA “without a fight”.
“It’s vital for the whole of the functioning of our medicines industry... We seem to be giving up this one without a fight,” Labour’s former health minister Ben Bradshaw said.
During the hearing Hunt told MPs his department would lose 30 percent of its staff in efficiency savings, but he was “confident we have enough resources to more than deal with Brexit”.
The Health Secretary also said he had shelved plans to charge ‘health tourists’ using the NHS, saying Brexit had prevented the Government going forward with the legislation.
Theresa May has pledged to champion the UK’s role in drug research and development. In July she said it was “hard to think of an industry of greater strategic importance to Britain than its pharmaceutical industry.”
The EMA has been based in London for two decades, cementing the UK’s place in Europe’s drugs industry.
But on Tuesday Hunt told MPs he did “not expect” to remain within the EMA, although he was “very hopeful” to keep working “very very closely” with the regulator.
He agreed with warnings from SNP MP and former surgeon Philippa Whitford that the UK might move into the “second rank” for access to drugs if it couldn’t maintain its relationship with the EMA.
“We might move into the second rank for drugs being launched, in that Canada and Australia get access to new drugs six months to a year behind the EU and the US, and that’s just market size”, Whitfield said.
“That is precisely why I would like to have the closest possible relationship, and would also say that I think the EU has as much to gain as we do from having that close relationship because of the scientific expertise within this country”, Hunt said in reply.
But MPs criticised Hunt for not trying harder to retain membership of the EMA.
“I have real concerns... that pharma are simply going to see the UK as a hostile market. It’s not just that we’ll be down there with Canada and Australia, six months to a year behind, we could slide further down”, Whitford said.
“We don’t want research that is done here that eventually becomes a drug, doesn’t become available.”
“We’ve just had a meeting with one of your colleagues who says the UK will retain membership of the European Patent Office. There are all sorts of agencies and organisations that are vital for us to remain a member of”, Bradshaw said.
“We seem to have given up on this one.”
Hunt said he would be arguing for the “closest possible equivalence” to the UK’s existing relationship with the EMA the upcoming Brexit negotiations.