It has been four years since the emergence of COVID-19 around the world, leading to a critical time of reflection of the challenges faced and the inequalities highlighted from this time of crisis. Since the pandemic, pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer and AstraZeneca have become household names, praised for their swift development of the COVID vaccines. This publicity was essential for Big Pharma, who were previously known for grotesque profits, unethical clinical trials and incentivising the overprescription of addictive medicines. Despite this, over the course of the pandemic, Big Pharma’s profits doubled to £149 billion after developing the vaccine with public funded money, when financial instability affected the majority of UK citizens as the country experienced its worst economic downturn for 300 years. 

Big Pharma’s profits have been critical in its accumulation of power and influence, achieved mainly through its extensive lobbying networks. In the US alone, the ability of pharmaceutical companies to lobby the government has been linked to its horrific opioid crisis. In the space of one decade, the industry spent £634 million on lobbying and campaign contributions. In contrast to this, only £3.17 million was spent in the same period by activist groups attempting to place limitations on the prescription of opioids. This lobbying power is also seen within Europe. In the UK alone, there were more than 360 meetings between January 2020 and March 2022 held between the government officials and 13 pharmaceutical lobby groups and companies. That means a meeting once every two days during one of the biggest health emergencies in history. 

The power that Big Pharma has developed in the past several decades has posed serious consequences for global health by influencing international trade.

The power that Big Pharma has developed, not just during the pandemic but in the past several decades, has posed serious consequences for global health by influencing international trade. Pharmaceutical lobbying played a significant role in the creation of the World Trade Organisation in 1995, which included policies that directly benefited Big Pharma through the introduction of intellectual property rights across the world. These rights meant that pharmaceutical companies could maintain monopolies over their products for 20 years in the form of patents. These product patents contributed to their ability to produce huge profits as there was no competition to drive down prices. Furthermore, companies were extending their 20-year limit on patents, increasing the time Big Pharma had monopoly over these products. One of the only countries that was able to introduce laws to combat these patents was India, which has led to its extensive generic medicine market, making it known as the ‘pharmacy of the world’. Medicine supplied by India has been vital in the progression of public health campaigns across the world, most notably across the continent of Africa, where the cost of HIV antiretroviral drugs reduced by 98%. The accessibility of these medicines after a cost reduction from £7928 per year to £289 highlights the importance of India’s pharmaceutical economy. 

Despite the importance of India’s medicine market, it is now in jeopardy as Brexit has led to new trade agreements being discussed between the UK and other nations. The UK and India have been in talks over an essential free trade deal for two years, yet has made little progress. Shortly after talks began, a leak of the documents on intellectual property sent shock waves through medical and public health professionals around the world. The UK has included a term that would prevent India from producing cheap generic medicine, and hand power back to Big Pharma. Instead of using this deal to continue the growth of public health initiatives, the UK government is set to destroy them and succumb to the pressure of pharmaceutical lobbying. 

It is not only low-income countries that benefit from India’s generics. Between 2011 and 2016, NHS spending on medicines each year rose by £4.3 billion. To combat this, more generic medicines were purchased, meaning 81% of medicines used are generic. One third of these drugs were supplied by India and have saved the NHS considerable amounts of money in expenditure on drugs. For one costly leukaemia drug, the NHS used to pay £27,200 per year/per person. After India began producing it, the cost of the NHS treatment dropped by 98%. With India supporting such a huge proportion of the UK’s health service, it raises the question as to why the UK would propose a trade deal with India that would result in an increase in the cost of medications for its own citizens? 

India’s ability to produce cheap medicine has long been seen as a threat to the profits of Big Pharma. Powerful lobbying from the pharmaceutical industry was arguably highly influential in including the terms on India’s medicine market in this free trade deal. The use of an essential trade deal to undermine India’s pharmaceutical industry would result in the UK’s own pharmaceutical companies profiting hugely, an industry that is reported to contribute £4 billion to the UK economy each year. It would typically be understandable for a country to grow its own industry and restrict the importation of a cheaper alternative, however pharmaceuticals should be a clear exception to this rule. The deal would lead to the UK turning to its own home-grown pharmaceutical companies for medications, increasing their profits, while simultaneously breaking down access to healthcare by citizens of the country when inevitably the NHS can no longer fund expensive medicines due to a lack of generic medications on the market. Medicines would become more expensive and it is likely we would see the inequality gap grow. 

This is not the case of one large corporation trying to take the other down and following the rules of business and capitalism. The influence of pharmaceutical lobbying has very real repercussions for global health and an increased chance of the gap between rich and poor widening even further, not just in the UK but around the world. It is essential that governments work together to protect the rights of their citizens to have access to essential health care, and place barriers on the power of the pharmaceutical industry. Instead, we are seeing the opposite. The fact that the UK-India free trade agreement would lead to increased medicine costs for the UK’s own citizens is compelling evidence that the interests of the pharmaceutical industry are being prioritised over the human right of access to health care. 

The influence of pharmaceutical lobbying has very real repercussions for global health and an increased chance of the gap between the rich and the poor widening even further.

Much speculation has been written about the effects of this trade deal, and the world is now watching to see what the outcome will be as the negotiations are reaching their final stage. The UK government’s hostility towards India’s generic pharmaceutical industry clearly shows the UK is working towards the interest of Big Pharma, rather than using this as an opportunity to push forward public health interventions. The time has come to put an end to Big Pharma’s greed and continuous destruction of health in the name of profits. 

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