What do the trade documents Jeremy Corbyn showed actually say about drug prices?

Published: 27th Nov 2019

"These documents confirm the US is demanding the NHS is on the table in the trade talks… These uncensored documents leave Boris Johnson’s denials in absolute tatters".

Jeremy Corbyn, 27 November 2019

At a press conference Jeremy Corbyn showed 451 pages of minutes from meetings between UK and US negotiators, which he said confirm the NHS is “on the table” in a future trade agreement.

The leaked UK documents (which appear to have been posted to Reddit over a month ago) detail six meetings between July 2017 to July 2019, and show UK and US negotiators discussing a large number of trade-related issues, most of which are not linked to healthcare. They do cite US negotiators bringing up the issue of pharmaceutical patents and drug pricing, though they do not give an indication of the extent to which UK negotiators agreed with the US position. 

Shorter patents, which after they expire enable the NHS to purchase generic rather than branded pharmaceuticals, is one of the reasons why drug prices are significantly lower in the UK than in the US.

According to UK negotiators, in November 2017 they had a “more limited discussion on pharmaceuticals.” They continued that it was “nevertheless a very helpful exposition on the key areas we can expect the US to push in an FTA and for us to start to determine the areas where we may find ourselves in difficult territory. The impact of some patent issues raised on NHS access to generic drugs (i.e. cheaper drugs) will be a key consideration going forward.”

And in July 2018, “as expected USTR [Office of the US Trade Representative] and USPTO [US Patent and Trademark Office] pushed hard on Grace Periods, Patent Term Extension and Adjustment

As we’ve written before several times, the US has long argued that other countries pay too little for pharmaceuticals, and was likely to seek to address this in a trade agreement. Their negotiating objectives published in February stated that what they described as “procedural fairness for pharmaceuticals” was one such objective. As we've said, depending on what the government agrees to in any UK-US trade agreement, it is possible that drug prices for the NHS might increase as a result. 

According to one of the documents, in July 2018 the UK negotiators had “reached a point (for Patents in Pharmaceuticals/Health) where beyond specific policy details in niche areas, we are awaiting the clearance to negotiate and exchange text to really take significant further steps.” 

Jeremy Corbyn has said this is “trade-negotiator speak for it being at a very advanced stage”, and the document from July 2019 states that discussions in a number of issues such as intellectual property are “well advanced”—although it remains unclear whether any agreement has actually been reached in this area.

So the documents show that, as expected, drug patents are a US negotiating objective in trade talks. But they don't clearly show us what, if anything, the UK has actually agreed.

Responding to the Labour claims, Secretary of State for International Trade Liz Truss said: “As we have consistently made clear, the NHS will not be on the table in any future trade deal and the price that the NHS pays for drugs will not be on the table.”

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