NHS England, Vertex cystic fibrosis drug negotiations have 'intensified,' official says

National Health Service chief executive Simon Stevens said the agency is "on the verge" of a cystic fibrosis drugs deal with Vertex Pharmaceuticals. (Pixabay/David Mark)

Vertex Pharmaceuticals and British health authorities have been stuck in cystic fibrosis (CF) drug pricing negotiations for years, and now those talks have again heated up.

National Health Service (NHS) chief executive Simon Stevens said at a committee hearing he’s “increasingly confident” the sides will be able to reach an agreement. He said the talks have "intensified" recently. 

“I think we need to get this resolved as fast as we possibly can … one way or the other,” he said. 

A Vertex spokeswoman said the company is "encouraged by the comments yesterday from NHS England Chief Executive Simon Stevens and by the significant progress we have made towards reaching an agreement that would secure access to our cystic fibrosis medicines for patients in England."

"We are hopeful that we will be able to finalize an agreement soon," she added.

A deal would represent a major breakthrough after years of deadlock. Patient advocates and lawmakers have pushed the sides to reach an agreement, but so far, patients still can’t access Vertex’s combo med Orkambi after its 2015 European approval. 

Last summer, tensions rose when Vertex CEO Jeffrey Leiden reached out to then-Prime Minister Theresa May to say that the country’s stance in the negotiations devalues patients and threatens the country's biopharma industry. During the negotiations, Vertex said it had made its best pricing offer worldwide to England, while British authorities said they had offered to pay more for the CF drugs than for any other medicines in NHS history.  

RELATED: Vertex strikes deal for Orkambi and Symkevi in Scotland, ramping up pressure on holdout England 

Earlier this year, Leiden and Vertex Chief Commercial Officer Stuart Arbuckle traveled to England for a hearing at the U.K. Parliament’s Health and Social Care Committee to face questions on the talks. In response to an inquiry from the hearing, Vertex in March disclosed that it had destroyed 8,000 expired Orkambi packs as the negotiations dragged on, further outraging patients and advocates.   

Meanwhile, Vertex this week won an early U.S. approval for triple combo CF med Trikafta, which could one day treat 90% of CF patients, Leiden said. 

Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify Stevens' comments.