The boss of a US pharmaceutical giant was last night accused of trying to ‘blackmail’ Theresa May into buying a groundbreaking drug at an eye-watering annual cost of £100,000 per patient.
Thousands of people with the deadly lung condition cystic fibrosis (CF) have been pleading with NHS bosses to strike a deal with Vertex over Orkambi, a new treatment that could extend their lives by years.
The talks collapsed acrimoniously ten days ago, after which Vertex boss Dr Jeff Leiden wrote to the Prime Minister threatening to scale back the firm’s investment in the UK unless NHS England agreed to buy Orkambi on its terms.
Dr Jeff Leiden wrote to the Prime Minister threatening to scale back the firm’s UK investment
In an extraordinary outburst, Dr Leiden accused Britain of placing ‘a lower value on the life of a CF patient than other countries’ which have purchased Orkambi, and warned that British jobs relied on his benevolence.
The row comes amid growing anger among health chiefs about how the ‘profiteering’ of drugs companies is heaping pressure on the NHS budget.
The starting price for Orkambi negotiations is thought to be £104,000 per patient per year.
Tory MP Bob Stewart said: ‘Drug companies have every right to turn a profit to fund their vital research and development work, but it is completely immoral to overcharge for a life-saving drug. If the CEO is trying to blackmail the Prime Minister that is utterly disgraceful.’
In his letter to Mrs May, Dr Leiden, who received £11 million in salary and stock options last year, wrote: ‘Vertex is heavily committed to the UK with its international HQ in London, an R&D site near Oxford and runs many clinical trials in the NHS. Since 2006, Vertex has invested over £1.2 billion in the UK and now employs 250 people, of whom over 110 are scientists.’
But he added: ‘We are questioning this ecosystem as [the UK] is unable to value life-changing medicines for the patients that need them.’ Without major changes to how new drugs were assessed, he pointedly warned that ‘any future biotech investment in the UK is at significant risk’.
In 2014, Dr Leiden, who owns a string of waterfront homes in Massachusetts and Florida, faced a shareholder revolt over his ‘exorbitant’ pay package of almost £35 million. Orkambi is the only current therapy that slows the inevitable progression of CF. It could benefit up to half of the 10,500 Britons with the condition.
CF causes lungs to produce too much mucus, reducing their effectiveness. Around half of sufferers die before the age of 47, but Orkambi has been shown to boost lung function by 42 per cent.
Catherine Upstone, from Brackley, Northamptonshire, whose daughter Cerys, 14, is one of those who could benefit from Orkambi, said: ‘The two sides need to get back around the table.’
But NHS England boss Simon Stevens recently told MPs that Vertex must first drop its price.
‘Right now, the company is a very long way from acting responsibly,’ he said. ‘The implication of the kinds of prices that are being talked about would either be to deny patients those drugs or to rip off British taxpayers, and neither of those situations is acceptable.’
Vertex’s chief commercial officer Stuart Arbuckle said the firm had made NHS England ‘the best offer in the world, which provides all eligible patients immediate access to our current and future medicines. However, the NHS wants our existing medicines and those coming down the line in the next year for no extra money – this is essentially asking for our medicines for free.’
NHS England said: ‘If Vertex believe they are offering a reasonable deal, they should waive their confidentiality clause and let patients and taxpayers judge whether it is fair.’