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UK patients could wait a year longer for new drugs after Brexit

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Leaving the EU regulatory scheme will make Britain less of a priority for pharmaceutical companies

National Pharmaceutical Factory Threatened To Close In Gaza Photo by Abid Katib/Getty Images

Patients in the UK may have to wait up to a year longer to access new drugs and treatments, after the country steps out of the European Union. This is because Great Britain currently plans to leave the European Medicines Agency (EMA) — the regulatory body that licenses medicine in all 28 EU member states.

The EU and its population of 500 million represent roughly 25 percent of the global drug market, according to The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI). Leaving the EMA would turn the UK into its own, much smaller drug market, accounting for just 3 percent. That means it would be less of a priority for pharmaceutical companies to license newly developed treatments there, resulting in delays.

Speaking to Members of Parliament last week, UK health secretary Jeremy Hunt said that Britain will leave the EMA under current plans, but try to retain a “strong partnership” with the agency. “I don't expect to remain within the European Medicines Agency, but I am very hopeful that we will continue to work very, very closely with [them],” said Hunt. He added that the UK would seek the “closest possible regulatory equivalence” with the EMA, with one option simply being to approve any drugs cleared for sale in the EU.

Even if that were to happen, though, British patients could still have to wait longer to access new medication. “While there is opportunity in creating a bespoke regulatory framework for the UK, if this operates outside of the EMA, the added time, cost and burden of having to seek additional regulatory approval in a separate system is likely to mean British patients’ access to medicines will face even greater delay,” Virginia Acha, an executive director at the ABPI, told The Guardian.

The ABPI is currently lobbying the government to try and retain some form of membership within the EMA. Philippa Whitford, a Scottish Nationalist MP and former National Health Service surgeon, suggested in parliament that “some form of associate membership” would be desirable. “Leaving the EMA would be bad for patients and bad for the NHS. We should be doing our damnedest to stay inside the EMA,” said Whitford.