Science minister lobbies health department over AstraZeneca drug

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 17 January 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f368
  1. Andrew Jack
  1. 1Financial Times

Government ministers are stepping up efforts to boost NHS prescriptions of recommended new drugs made by companies with a significant presence in the United Kingdom.

David Willetts, the science minister, has raised concerns with his counterparts at the Department of Health for England over the low adoption of new drugs that have been endorsed as safe, effective, and cost effective, including AstraZeneca’s antiplatelet drug ticagrelor (marketed as Brilique).

The action comes after growing complaints from the drug industry that doctors are ignoring positive recommendations on its drugs made by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), the government’s medicines advisory body.

Many companies are coming under pressure from investors to cut staff and investments, including in the UK, in response to price cuts, competition from generic products, and difficulties in developing and selling new drugs.1

Ticagrelor, which costs £54.60 a month, whereas the standard treatment, clopidogrel, costs £3.40 a month, has been approved by European regulators and was in 2011 endorsed by NICE for the treatment of acute coronary syndrome. The institute judged it clinically effective, with its benefits outweighing the risks, including the dangers of non-compliance, bleeding, and a non-significant higher incidence of stroke.2

However, AstraZeneca said that only 42% of hospitals in England were currently funding routine access of patients to the drug, mainly in the north of England. A company spokesperson said, “We share the NHS and the government’s objective of broadening patient access to innovative medicines and continue to engage in dialogue.”

An official at the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills confirmed that Willetts had discussed the uptake of ticagrelor as part of broader regular discussions on the adoption of drugs in line with the government’s strategy for UK life sciences and the recommendation of the NHS chief executive’s report Innovation, Health and Wealth.3

The official said, “He regularly meets with companies to discuss issues of importance to them and has a strong interest in making sure that the environment for the life sciences industry is conducive to innovation and growth.”

Willetts was identified in 2011 as the minister with “strategic relationship management responsibility” for drug companies, including the UK headquartered drug manufacturers AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline and other companies with important UK investments, including Pfizer, Novartis, Roche, Eisai, and Johnson & Johnson.4

The government has committed itself to providing more data on the uptake of new drugs. Its recently released Innovation Scorecard identified a number of treatments used infrequently despite NICE guidance.

A health department spokesperson said, “Patients have a right to medicines and treatments that have been approved by NICE and are clinically appropriate for them . . . We recently published the Innovation Scorecard to help identify, explain or address any variation in access to drugs and treatments. We expect NHS organisations to look at this data and make the necessary changes to meet the needs of their local population.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f368