Conflicting claims about ‘new’ cancer drug thanks to Brexit are both misleading

11 May 2021
What was claimed

A new lung cancer drug has been authorised under an international scheme that the UK has been able to join post Brexit.

Our verdict

The medication has had EU authorisation since 2016 but the recent authorisation has allowed a new use of the medication, earlier in the disease. This has not yet been authorised in the EU.

What was claimed

Osimertinib (the lung cancer medication) has been licensed in the EU for use since 2016.

Our verdict

Osimertinib has been authorised for use in the EU since 2016, but for use in later stage lung cancers. A sub body of the EMA has recently recommended that the medication be authorised for earlier use, but this has not yet been approved by the European Commission.

“UK gets new lung cancer drug under international scheme thanks to Brexit deal.”

“We looked it up. This drug is licensed for use in the EU. It's been available to EU countries since 2016.”

A Daily Express headline says that the UK has authorised a “new lung cancer drug under international scheme thanks to [the] Brexit deal”. The Best for Britain campaign group has attempted to fact check the headline in posts on social media, claiming that it’s a ‘new low’ and that the drug has been licensed and available to EU countries since 2016.  

Both claims are missing some important fine detail: the medication has been authorised for use in the EU since 2016, but has been newly authorised for a slightly different use in the UK (and many other countries) in 2021. This new authorisation has not yet been granted in the EU.

The claims center around a medication called Osimertinib (brand name Tagrisso). This medication is used in people who have non small cell lung cancer (the most common form of lung cancer) with rare tumours which possess a particular genetic mutation. 

The medication has already been licensed in the UK and EU for use in people with mid and later stage non small cell lung cancer. 

The new authorisation announced in May, however, allows a new use of the medication in the UK, at an earlier stage in the disease, and is intended to be used to treat patients (who meet certain criteria) with early stage lung cancer after surgery in order to prevent recurrence. This new use has been approved by 15 other countries including the US and China. 

The new use has not yet been authorised in the EU. However, It was recommended for approval by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) during a review by the Committee for Medicinal products for Human Use (which is a subgroup of the EMA) in April 2021, but this change has to be approved by the European Commission.

The health secretary Matt Hancock, has said that the speed of the new authorisation in the UK has come about thanks to the UK being able to join ‘Project Orbis’ following opportunities presented post-Brexit. 

Project Orbis is a programme which allows the review of medications and products used in cancer treatments by international partner regulatory authorities. This is coordinated by the US Food and Drug Administration and includes nations such as the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Switzerland and Brazil. 

The recommendation for authorisation of this new use has already been made by the EMA subgroup, and therefore may be authorised by the EU soon. The EMA told Full Fact that this decision-making process normally takes two months. 

It is therefore not yet clear how much more quickly the UK has been able to authorise the new use in comparison to the EU; it may be around two months faster.

This article is part of our work fact checking potentially false pictures, videos and stories on Facebook. You can read more about this—and find out how to report Facebook content—here. For the purposes of that scheme, we’ve rated this claim as missing context because the medication has been authorised for a new and slightly different use, but the medication itself is not new and has been authorised in the EU since 2016.

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